Change Like the Tides: Complete rough draft

 

pexels-photo-189349.jpgHere is a very rough draft of Change Like the Tides. And when I mean rough draft, I mean rough draft. Lots of spelling errors. Choppy sentence structures. Not a very good flow. However, I will work on correcting it. Until then enjoy the story. 

Image: Body of Water During Golden Hour. Copyright by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels Photo. 

Kirk Carlson was excited for his shore-leave to Jybogia, a planet dominated by mainly water. With a surface covered in 95 percent water, it made the 71 percent of earth covered in water look pathetic. From out the porthole, he could see the planet radiating like a blue gemstone.

It had been a long two weeks with the Interplanetary Expedition (IX) in researching the soil of a desert planet a 600 million light years away. Even with the warping of space, it still felt like a long trip. Sure, the IX Explorer was equipped with virtual reality wires that sent someone to sleep, thus manipulating dreams into games, but it was still shades and not reality in and of itself. It got boring. But it didn’t get as boring as the expedition to the desert planet that Carlson and his crewmates had to go on. All for taking soil samples to see if there was once life. Granted, it IX prided itself on exploring all sorts of worlds, some with life, some without life, but some planets were more exciting than ever. Taking soil samples for two weeks hadn’t been Carlson’s idea of a good trip. But this water planet was a different matter. This would be a much needed vacation.

But it wasn’t so much the planet that he was looking forward to seeing again, although he did find Jybogia to be one of the most fascinating planets they had come across, but Thuuth. Thuuth was a Jybogian.

Upon IX’s later encounter with this semi-aquatic race, they found by taking some DNA samples (voluntarily given) that the Jybogians had 80 percent human DNA, solidifying the theory of panspermia from a common source. The other 20 percent was amphibian DNA. The first meeting with the Jybogians got off to a rocky start, as the translators initially had a hard time deciphering their language. Not easy, considering the crew wanted to learn the language of the native inhabitants to show good graces. Honestly, radio frequencies should have been used to pick up the Jybogian language first to be translated and studied before disembarking on the surface. But protocol had been foolishly ignored in their excitement, and the inhabitants had hid from them in the ocean for five hours, the amount of time they could hold their breaths. Still, after long months trust was earned. Particularly when Carlson and the others offered the Jybogians gifts, which the natives looked at as though they were magical talismans, and started to speak some of the Jybogian’s own language.

It was when trust was established that the crew had been invited to a dinner by the Jybogians. It was a risky endeavor, to be sure. Strange food on a foreign planet; would the human system be able to digest it? Dr. Valerie Brentwood had brought the food analyzer along, but scanning the chemical compounds of the food didn’t negate all the risks. There were occasionally stories of IX members of other ships and crews who died from eating alien food. Thankfully, such was not the case among the Jybogian cuisine. Their dishes of their own fish and their salads of their own sea-plants were not just edible, but tasty.

But it had been the dancers that intrigued most of the crew. They had come out on a platform, if it could be called a platform. It was more like a large stone tub full of water, stuffed with water flowers and planets, including Jybogia’s own type of lily pad. And on the pads danced four young Jybogian women. Lithe and slender, and of different colors, they danced on the pads in a mix that was like a human ballet and the way a fish would dance if fish could dance. Light yellow, pale orange, sky blue, and mint green, dressed in the pink and red petals of sea plants, moved their bodies in a symphony to the music being played, lightly leaping from pad to pad, graceful kicks in the air, to come back to arm and arm (as well as fin and fin; seeing as part of their arms had thin wispy, transparent fins lining them) with one another. It was the most beautiful performance Carlson had ever seen. Even his boss, Captain Gerald Jones, who was a stern man, hard to impress, had been enraptured by the dance.

Carlson had not expected to see the dancers again. But the blue one had asked him, in broken, but understandable English, if she could sit by him. In turn, Carlson had granted her request in broken but understandable Jybogian. That was how he had met Thuuth.

And Carlson soon learned that Thuuth had an appetite that was hungry for the cosmos and all the wonders it held. Carlson had planned to ask her everything he could about Jybogia, but she was more interested in learning about Earth. She couldn’t fathom that there was something called ‘continents, when her planet was made up of a bunch of different islands. She was particularly impressed by the number of land mammals, considering there weren’t any land mammals on her planet. In turn, Carlson couldn’t help but be impressed by the young Jybogian’s gregarious attitude as well as her curiosity. She was incredibly gentle. The friendship she and the rest of her people showed the crew was nothing short of extraordinary, considering there was a lack of trust to begin.

Staring out the window, Carlson could see that the shuttle was rapidly approaching the surface of the big island, out of a long chain of islands. Dubbed the coil, the island chain almost formed a perfect question mark except the top end part of the mark curved downward and then into itself, islands meeting islands. Aside from that, it was nearly a perfect question mark. Even the last dot on the opposite end was spaced far enough apart from the other islands to look like the period portion of a question mark. A bright green one at that. It reminded Carlson of when he lived back on earth and has visited Ireland.

The shuttle came to a landing on a soft pasture of grass and the Carlson un-boarded the ramp with the rest of the crew. That fresh sea breeze hit him, not that much different than earths.

But what was different was the fauna. Carlson never got tired of it. Flowers about twelve feet tall loomed over them. The petals were as big as a dinner plate and they shone a transparent violet when the sun hit them. A violet ray of light was bathing Carlson as he stopped to admire the flowers roots. He loved how the jutted out from the earth, and bent over like a bunch of poles to hold up a tent. These huge flowers weren’t all that different than some of the mangroves back on earth. Like the mangroves back home, the violet flowers needed strong roots to withstand the onslaught of not just storms, but the waves. Since the planet had two moons, the tide was much more powerful and stronger, able to cover all the islands, including the big one, during high tide. Underneath the large violet flowers were smaller yellow flowers, glittering like scattered pirate’s gold. Their vines made a covering, wrapping themselves around the roots of the giant flowers. And while the giant flowers protected the smaller ones, the smaller yellow ones helped filter out much of the salt for the bigger ones; a symbiotic relationship if there ever was one.

But the most impressive site was what the Jybogians called the Talylul trees. There were many of them further inland on this island that was only three square miles. Clustering close together for protection from the harsh ocean, Carlson could see them from a mile away. They were tall. About half the size of a full grown redwood, and their roots and branches curled around one another, give each other extra support. It was in spaces between the branches of the trees that the Jybogians built their homes. From this distance, Carlson may as well have been blind, but once he and the crew got up into the foliage, the dwellings would become visible.

“Get your butts moving,” said the gruff voice of Captain Gerald Jones. Carlson could blame the captain’s ill temper. Like the rest of the crew, he was tired.

“You coming lover-boy?” teased Dr. Brentwood.

“You don’t need to tell me twice,” said Carlson.

All seven members of the crew made their way towards the Jybogian capital within the trees. With heavy luggage, even a mile long walk could feel like an ordeal. Thankfully, all the luggage, Carlson’s included, were loaded onto a hover pallet, meaning no one had to carry it. The pallet gave off a light humming as it hovered a half-foot off the ground and followed the procession.

“Did anyone remember to activate the force field on the shuttle before we left?” the Captain stopped dead in his tracks.

“Don’t worry, sir,” said one of the crewmates, the engineer Burt Babbit. “I made sure that the force field was activated just as soon as we stepped off the ship.

“Are you sure?”

Carlson had to stifle a laugh. It was amazing that Henderson had ever made the rank of captain. While being vigilant and secure was a virtue, there were times that Henderson almost bordered on obsessive-compulsive to the point that he would go back and check something, including making sure a force field was functioning, again and again. Carlson wanted to see Thuuth, so he hoped this wouldn’t be one of those moments.

“Sir, I promise you, I put in the program myself before we disembarked.”

“I fear high tide. I don’t need forty foot waves washing away the shuttle.”

“I promise you, sir, we are not going to be stranded on this planet. I even looked back to see the force field go up.”

“Fine,” barked Jones. “But if we are stranded here, I’ll throw you to the fishes of this sea.”

The engineer nodded and shrugged.

“He certainly has his uniform on too tight, doesn’t he?” whispered Brentwood. “You’d think that he doesn’t know that IX headquarters doesn’t know where we are or that they have our DNA safely in a computer bank that they can track us with by sending out a signal to read for our signs.”

“You would think,” Carlson whispered back.

“You would think he was going old and senile and that he forgot his meds,” she chuckled.

Carlson cocked a sly eyebrow at her. “I would think that you as doctor would make sure he remembered to take them.”

Brentwood laughed.

Jones shot a glare back at them. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing. Just a funny joke Dr. Brentwood told me,” said Carlson.

Grumbling, nerves obviously frayed from the stress of the last trip, the captain kept leading the procession. Meanwhile, Carlson couldn’t help but take a look at the doctor. Beautiful! With her tan skin and black hair. But her personality was incredibly attractive with her wicked sense of humor and easy going mannerism. If Carlson wasn’t so infatuated with Thuuth, he would have tried to kindle a deeper relationship with Valerie Brentwood.

As it was, Carlson couldn’t contain his excitement. Though a practical man and not a romanticist by nature, he couldn’t help but feel his heart tugging him towards the grove of Talylul trees. He liked to think that he and Thuuth’s heart were just as entangled as the branches of those trees.

Relax, he told himself. Take in the natural beauty of the surroundings. Though he had seen it all before, he never got tired of the rich variety of flora and fauna of Jybogia. In a deep puddle were some crescent flowers of neon pink and green and resting on them were a type of snail the Jybogian’s called geelaks. These snails had hard shells that were almost the same color as the crescent flowers, enabling them to camouflage themselves from all the sharp tooth beasties that wanted to eat them. The snails themselves were a dark purple color, with a silver strip running horizontal on their sides. Soon they passed some rocks and boulders, though in truth they were giant blue salt crystals. They glittered like blue ice in the sunlight, but didn’t melt. Perched one of them was a white lizard, a brub, wings two feet long outstretched to absorb the sunlight. Head craned down, as though weighed down by the horn in the middle of its head (though it wasn’t weighed down, as the horn was light and hollow) it looked quizzically at the procession as the passed along.

No matter where Carlson turned his head, there were just too many wonders to see, and though he had seen them all before, it felt like he was looking at it all with the fresh eyes of a child discovering the wonders around him for the first, especially since his trip to the desert planet.

This sense of wonder helped the time pass by and moved him closer to his goal, until he was the Talylul tree grove. High up, the trees towered over him with many branches knotted around one another in a firm grip to withstand the raging waters at high tide. Carlson touched the silver bark of one of the trees, smooth under his fingertips. If not for the branches, he didn’t know how anyone could climb these trees. For that matter, even if the branches, it was slick enough that he wasn’t sure how even the most nimble of human children could grip onto them without slipping and falling on their backs. But the Jybogians were different. Light and nimble, they were good jumpers as well as good swimmers. Notwithstanding, they still didn’t like always jump. Sometimes they were too tired after a day of fishing and hunting for birds that they just wanted to conserve their energy and take the makeshift elevator up. This was not just beneficial for the Jybogians, but serendipitous for people like Carlson.

The makeshift elevator, attached to a long vine and operated with a crank, came down and out of the wicker basket stepped out Jubul, the advisor to the chief of this tribe of Jybogians and well respected among all of them. Carlson had seen him before landing. The advisor was conspicuous among the green foliage of the trees with his red skin.

In perfect English he said, “Ah, friend Jones, Brentwood, Carlson, Babbit, Suski, Griffith, and Morgan, welcome, welcome! It’s always so good to have your company. Will you be needing lodging for the night?”

“If it’s agreeable with the chief, we were hoping for a couple of weeks,” said Jones. We are on shore-leave.”

Carlson had to give the captain credit. Despite his prickly nature, he could be quiet diplomatic when need be. Of course he had to be. IXP’s goal was good relations with all life-forms, and if a captain acted up, he or she would be demoted faster than light sucked into a black hole.

“But of course,” said Jubul. “Chief Biguk has instructed me that you are all to be our honored guests as long as you wish, and not to bother him over such trivialities of when you come and go. You know, he is still fond of the gift you gave him. For that matter,” and the advisor reached into the pocket of his leafy smock to bring out a small, circular holo-projector that fit perfectly in the interior of the palm. An image of a wife in a long leafy dress holding a child popped up; Jubul’s wife and child. “Because of your lovely gift, I can take my wife and child with me wherever I go, in a sense I can that is.”

With pleasantries out of the way, people were then loaded two at a time up the wicker basket. Carlson was one of the last to get in. Up he went, past the tangled branches and the leaves as thick and as wide as him. Knock, knock, went the wicker basket, sometimes bumping up against branches and leaves. Immersed in a jungle, it was hard to tell that they were 80 feet up, and that the trees rose 150 feet at the highest points.

Wrapped still among the leaves and shadowed by the branches, he was now on the platform where a stairway lead up to the first wooden structure, the welcome hall of the gods where the Jybogian’s had carved idols out of salt of all their gods. Walking through the hall, Carlson and company came to the exit where wood bridges and steps branched off in in every direction through the branches and to the different structures. Here the crew split up, leaving Carlson to do his own thing. Everyone knew where the guest quarters were and that the hover pallet with their supplies could get their own its own, drop off their supplies and park itself in a safe crevice of the trees until it was needed again. As for Carlson, he knew that Thuuth was likely in one of two places, her home or the performance hall.

Remembering that Thuuth usually performed in the evening, and it was still midday, and it would be a midday for a long time as the two moons slowed down Jybogia’s rotation, he decided to try her hut. Traversing the path, Carlson found himself having that same wild, exhilarating sense of freedom he first felt when he arrived. He was a kid again, and though he had walked these paths many times during his last visit, it all felt new and fresh, as if he were exploring a tree fort anew, in which anything could happen. First he walked a solid bridge leading from one large branch to another, then a longer wooden bridge greeted him, a rope bridge, swinging from the light breeze. Carlson held tight to the vine ropes of the bridge and steadies himself as he walked across. In a flash of fluttering color likes leaves blown in the autumn wind, orange, gold, and yellow neekal birds took flight, taking away Carlson’s breath. Resuming his walk, he came to the wooden planks that were nailed into a huge tree, forming a set of stairs that wound around the tree.

He walked up the planks until he was a good twenty feet higher up than before. There, nestled in the crevice of where the branches branched out even further and where other stairways lead up to other huts. A silk curtain, or a material that was like a silk, hung at Thuuth’s doorway. Regardless, the material for the doorway came from worms, but these black worms were as large as cats, covered in spines, and highly toxic.

“Thuuth, I’m back,” he called out excitedly. No answer.

He moved aside the curtain and looked inside. Her cot with silk blankets was at one side, (there were no fur blankets, but there didn’t need to be; due to the planet mainly being water to regulate the temperature, it never got that cold) was undisturbed. Her little table with salt crystal idols was over at the other side. Neat and tidy, just like she liked it.

No matter. The performance center wasn’t far from her home. Carlson walked up the steps of one of the nearby branches and then crossed a bridge to another tree. Winding his way further up another set of stairs, he came to the performance center. It was just like he remembered seeing when he saw Thuuth first perform, with the purple curtain hanging on the door frame and the etchings of the native wildlife on the door frame. He walked through the door, under the slanted roof with a carved symbol of a dancer.

Inside were the dancers practicing over that same stone pond that he had watched them perform over during his last visit, and sitting in front on a wooden chair was Thuuth. He could recognize that blue skin and the shape of the head.

“Thuuth,” her name bubbled out from the confines of his soul, gushing forth joyfully. “Thuuth, I’ve missed you.”

She turned her head and looked at him with those same pale white eyes. How beautiful! How elegant! How a humanoid creature that was primarily human in form but with a little bit of amphibian could look so lovely.

“I’m afraid you’re mistaken,” the Jybogian said in a deep, masculine voice.

“I’m sorry,” Carlson apologized. “It’s just you look so much like her.” He bit his tongue and blushed, fearing that his words may have come across as offense. People back on earth didn’t like being mistaken for the opposite sex. He couldn’t imagine Jybogians would feel any different. “Again, I’m sorry. I seem to be a real klutz.”

The man shrugged and stood up from his chair. He wore a long leaf tunic, his bare arms exposed. He had exactly the same fin structure down his arms as well as the same webbed fingers and toes that Thuuth had.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s obvious why we would look alike. I’m her twin brother.”

“She never told me she had a twin.”

“She couldn’t speak very good English then.”

Carlson nodded in agreement. “Can she speak good English now? You speak perfect English.”

“Thank you. I practiced with the translators you left us. How about you? Can you speak perfect Jybogian?”

If Carlson had been embarrassed before, he was ten-fold now; the blood running to his face. He felt like a bad guest not taking more time to learn their language. “No, I’m afraid I can’t.”

Again, the male Jybogian shrugged as it to assure Carlson that it wasn’t that big of a deal. “No matter,” he said. “You’ll see Thuuth when she comes back, if she comes back.”

“What do you mean if?” Carlson felt a sick sensation creep into his stomach. He had heard stories about Jybogians going on dangerous quests to prove themselves to their gods, but he didn’t know that the females did it too.

“She is on a long journey, swimming a great distance to the land of our ancestors in order to commune with them. It’s not an easy journey. The seas are full of dangerous creatures who make us their diets.”

“I guess I could try tracking her,” said Carlson.

“She is not to be disturbed. Would you dishonor our traditions?” he glared at Carlson angrily.

Carlson gulped. No, of course he wouldn’t. IXP had a strict code of respecting other cultures. Interacting with them was permissible, but breaking the codes they lived by was not. “I’m sorry. Once again I have shown ignorance.”

“Don’t let it trouble you any further,” the man’s face softened. “I worry about her, too. But we must respect the traditions of our ancestors. Now, I’m afraid I’m at a loss; you are?”

“Kirk Carlson.”

“Ah, nice to meet you. I am Gabigot. If things go well, my sister should be back in another month.”

Carlson’s heart sunk even further. He only had two weeks on the planet. “Any chance she could come back sooner?”

“Perhaps, but not likely.”

Carlson thanked him and left the performance hall. As he was making his way up a set of stairs up a large branch, he was confronted by a female Jybogian; a mint-green one who was one of the original performers he had seen dance with Thuuth. At first she had startled him. For she had followed him by leaping from branch to branch before taking a bigger leap off a branch nearest to him, somersaulting in the air and landing smack on her feet in front of him.

“So sorry,” she said. “Mean not to you scare.”

Her English was broken, but Carlson didn’t care. He could understand her.

“It’s okay,” he said, breathing heavily. “What’s up?”

She looked at him confused. “More tree,” she finally said.

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Sky.”

Carlson sighed. It wasn’t her fault, but his own for not being clear. “I mean is there something you wanted to tell me?”

“Yes,” she nodded, smiling at herself as though she had finally got it.

“Okay, then. What was it you wanted to tell me?”

“Thuuth! Her you forget.”

“I never forgot her,” he scratched his chin, puzzled.

“No! Need!” And she pointed at his chest. “Her you need forget.”

“But why?”

“Because she you is dead. Dead. Brother eat her.”

Carlson didn’t need a mirror to know that his face turned ashen.

The dancer gave him a look of pity and pointed herself. “Sorry, I am,” she said. Then she took a huge leap and leapt on the branch of another tree.

Sick. Carlson was sick to his stomach. If Jybogia had only one moon, it would be a long day, but with two moons the day was going to be longer. Night would be a long time coming.

For that matter, there was hardly any night. The two moons lit up the sky, making it difficult for Carlson to sleep. Awake upon the soft silk bedding and under the soft silk sheets within the guest room, he couldn’t feel any comfort. The sounds of the native fauna, which had seemed tranquil during his last visit now sounded hostile. On a planet with two moons, most of the fauna had developed ways to camouflage themselves from nighttime predators, but Carlson didn’t have any way to blend in like a chameleon back on earth, or some of the animals on Jybogia could. He felt vulnerable.

He couldn’t stop thinking about what that dancer said about Thuuth. Dead. Consumed by her brother. Had Gabigot eaten his own sister? Carlson controlled the urge to retch. He didn’t need to wake his sleeping companions, some of whom were snoring like rocket jets near him. Some, such as Valerie Brentwood, had earlier asked him if he was okay when they saw that he looked paled. Oh, how wanted to tell them the truth, especially to the gentle doctor. But he lied, assuring them that he was perfectly fine, that he just got a bit dizzy swinging from a long vine. He had no right to ruin their shore-leave. Cultures were different and he had to accept that. Besides, this humanoid civilization had a little bit of amphibian DNA in them, and didn’t some amphibians eat their young? It wasn’t unheard. Back on earth it was normal for frogs to eat their young. A sad but true fact of the animal kingdom.

That’s what the Jybogians were like. Frogs. The way they leapt from trees. How far they could hop. And fish. They were like fish with how they could swim. Eating one another wouldn’t be out of the question. For them it might even be logical.

But then was lying logical too for this species? Was Thuuth’s brother Gabigot a liar as well as a cannibal? Despite feeling upset, Carlson had to sickly chuckle to himself over how he had prioritized that thought. It was as if he was prioritizing lying as more abhorrent than cannibalism. Not just any cannibalism, but family cannibalism. The whole thing was a morbid family affair.

Not able to sleep, Carlson pushed the covers aside and went out onto the deck. The moons glowed above him, one brighter than the other because of the active volcanoes on the surface. The brightness of the moons illuminated the high tide. It had already come in, and the waters were winding around the trees. Foamy flecks of surf struck the trunks of the trees. The surf was far from gentle. It was fierce.

With a high tide that washed over and drowned out all the island chains, Carlson couldn’t imagine the hurricanes on this planet. How did the Jybogians survive? One thing was for certain, what once seemed like a peaceful planet now seemed like Darwin’s survival of the fittest magnified tenfold.

He looked back up at the moons. One day one of those moons would crash into the other moon, and there would be only one moon. The tide wouldn’t be as strong. Perhaps there would even be a little more land because of it. But for now they were a symbol of the hostility of the planet, with the volcanic one glowing a hellish orange.

Amazing how perceptions could change. For not only had once Carlson’s eyes perceived the planet in a more positive light, but it wasn’t long ago that he had gazed at the moons with a different set of eyes. That was when Thuuth was alive. He had walked out on one of the balconies with her, and together they had admired both the moons and the high tide that cleansed the islands. The idea of an ocean engulfing a whole island would have been a scary thought to those not accustomed or native to the planet, but to Thuuth it was life and a natural order of things. The vegetation wasn’t just prepared for the flooding, it thrived off it, and Thuuth had helped Carlson to see the order of nature the same way she did.

“Look at the two moons,” she had said, pointing to them. “Don’t you love how one of them is brighter than the other?”

In turn, Carlson had said, “That’s because the first moon, the less bright one is tugging on the brighter one, instigating volcanic activity.” This had led to a talk on gravity and physics. Most importantly, it had led to stronger emotional connection between the two of them.

Thuuth helped Carlson see life in way that he had never seen, and he had helped her look at life in a way that she had never seen. Carlson had initial concerns about talking to her about science, worried that it would destroy her faith. But the opposite had happened. It had helped her see her gods work in a different way, giving more meaning to the myth. On the other hand, her unwavering belief in her gods had helped Carlson remember the importance of the mythopoeic mind.

Their trust had grown so strong that Thuuth had barred a part of her body to Carlson. She had removed her top let him see tattoo above her breasts. It was a refined symbol. It was about the size of his fist, and it was a cross between their sun and their ocean. It was circular with what could have been either choppy waves or fiery sunlight. Nestled in-between the circle were the inkings of one of a god bird and a goddess fish. The two of them encircling each other almost like the Ying and the Yang of Taoism did, symbolic of the harmony between the two, which created a mix between land and water creatures, the Jybogians the most blessed. Two graceful lines swirled down to her breasts and encircled her nipples, a reminder that the gods gave women the gift of life, birth and milk. Though, in the case of the Jybogians, while the women gave milk, they still laid eggs.

“Do you trust me?” Thuuth had asked Carlson.

“Yes.”

“Then you have nothing to fear with me.”

Carlson had come to find out that that meant that Thuuth had hoped to show him a hurricane someday. This had scared Carlson, but he had to remind himself their trees were of a stronger substance than back on earth. She had assured him that he would be safe, and that she wanted him to see their gods as their best.

Now Carlson was so worried about what happened to Thuuth that he would have gladly taken weathering a monster hurricane with her instead of facing the unknown of what happened to her, worrying if he’d ever see her again. Yes, it would be a long night, lasting over twenty hours because of those two moons. Long days, long nights. And unlike the Jybogian’s, Carlson couldn’t sleep for over twenty hours, even though it had been a very long day, a day that last longer than a day on earth.

He wanted to go back to the shuttle to sleep in a more comfortable bed, but the high tide was up. It intrigued Carlson to know that the trunks of the trees below him were now mired in water. It made him think back home to the Louisiana Bayou or the Florida Everglades. But come day, the trees would be nourished, their roots having filtered out the salt.

Carlson went back to his bed and climbed under the covers. Listening to the surf lapping up against the trees, he eventually fell asleep. But anxieties from unanswered questions plagued him and he needed answers.

Tossing aside the blankets, Carlson made his way back to the Thuuth’s hut, the double moons giving him ample light. Heart full of determination, and hope, he would surprise Thuuth when she came back. Surely she was coming back. She must be coming back. For his sake she had to return. But did she? Logically she didn’t have. Compassion and human emotion didn’t dictate the universe, but cold, hard scientific facts. Carlson had traveled the galaxy enough to know that it was an unforgiving place. From the surface of a planet to the depths of outer space to the close proximity of a star, no place was truly safe. Either Thuuth had died in her spiritual quest or that Jybogian was lying about the quest and they had killed her. It was a drastic thought. Carlson reminded himself that just because the Jybogians were frog-like didn’t mean they were frogs. There was more homo-sapian in their DNA. And homo-sapiens didn’t eat each other, at least not normally. Then again, the Jybogians were more like the ancient earth tribes, so add their little bit of frog DNA and put into consideration that they were like old earth tribes, maybe cannibalism wasn’t that off the wall. Then again, it was foolish to look at primitive tribes of earth and frogs and then say that the Jybogians would be cannibals because of those two examples. Science was determined by hard-empiricism more than it was innate ideas, or, as Carlson like to think of it, of preconceived biases.

A soft light illuminated from the windows of Thuuth’s hut. Heart pounding, Carlson had to stop himself from rushing to the door, lest he take a fall from the tree. Thuuth was back!

At least that’s what he thought.

When Carlson pulled back the curtain and called her name, it wasn’t Thuuth who looked up from the table but Gabigot.

For a moment, Carlson almost lost control of his emotional faculties. He wanted to take Gabigot and slam him to the floor, pinning him down, shouting at the top of his lungs if it was true whether he ate his sister. Instead he gently asked, “Is it true?”

“Is what true?” Gabigot looked at him quizzically. “And what are you doing in my – I mean Thuuth’s house?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing,” said Carlson, pulling up a chair from the opposite end of the table and taking a seat. “A Jybogian woman came to me today and told me that you had eaten your sister. I am hoping that’s not true.”

Gabigot peered at him with sad eyes, and Carlson was for certain that with a look that manifested such guilt that it was true. Thuuth was eaten. By her own brother. Carlson felt sick to his stomach.

“So, it is true?”

Gabigot nodded. “Yes, but not for the reason you think.”

“I loved her,” Carlson’s voice strained, holding back a shout. His fists were clenched on top of the table, the nails of his fingers dinging in his hands, and his face was burning red as he gritted his teeth. It was the only thing he could do to keep from lashing out.

“She is alive in a sense,” continued Gabigot, undeterred by Carlson’s anger.

“So you did eat her?”

“That’s a crude way of putting it. But it’s an analogy my people have lived with for a long time, and if you talked with a Jybogian who hardly knows English, well, I get why you might think that. But the truth is, I am here. I am Thuuth.”

“What?”

Without the least bit of grace, Gabigot ripped his tunic off of him, and though he was flat chested, the same tattoo was on his chest, the fish and the bird conspicuous. “Remember when I showed you this?” he asked.

“It can’t be,” Carlson slapped a hand to his head. “I was told that every Jybogian has a tattoo unique to them, and that was unique to Thuuth.”

“Just as unique to her as it is to me,” nodded Gabigot thoughtfully. “You see, her and I are one.”

“But you don’t mean one as in you ate her?”

“No. Not like the way you are thinking. But I still fear telling you the whole story.”

“Please tell me,” begged Carlson, having left his chair and gotten on his knees. “I need to know.”

“I will if you promise you won’t judge me harshly,” said Gabigot.

“I promise. Just tell me.”

Gabigot sighed as he took Carlson by the hands. He allowed himself to be gently raised up by this strong male Jybogian. Eyes to eyes, it felt like an eternity before Gabigot said something. When he did, it hit Carlson hard. “Like a frog, I’m a freak of nature.”

Carlson felt like he had been punched in the stomach, the air knocked out of him. He had told Thuuth, but not Gabigot, that some species of frogs on his planet changed sexes. From birthing from their backs, to pushing down food with their eyes, to changing their sexes, he had joked that frogs were freaks of nature. But that couldn’t possibly mean…

“Do you change your sex?” the words came out of Carlson’s mouth slowly like molasses through a filter.

“Yes,” said Gabigot. “I am your Thuuth. We do change our sexes. Not on our own accord, but because we believe that’s what our father god, the bird, and our mother god, the fish, decided. It is believed that long ago the two sexes grew prideful in their own femininity and masculinity, and feelings grew so bitter between the two that they came to blows. Mother God and Father God then put a curse on us, so that we could change our sexes. Of course, I know that you have a scientific explanation for how they do it.”

“I’m sure I do,” said Carlson. “But didn’t you tell me that you’ll change back into a female in a month?”

“I might,” Gabigot walked over to the window to look out at the night sky. “But it’s not for certain.” He turned to look back at Carlson. “Didn’t you say something about genetics?”

“I did.”

Gabigot looked back out the window. “I imagine that genetics play a role whether I will turn back into a female or remain a male. It’s hard to tell. It’s different with each one of us of my species. Some are born male to change female, to never turn back. Some are born female to change male, never turning back. While some of us fluctuate for a while before choosing one form for the rest of our lives whereas others of us are always changing until the day we die. Gods, genetics, call it what you will, but it’s the way of things.”

“Yeah, I guess it is.” Carlson couldn’t help but remember all the science classes he had to take before joining IX. One thing that was bombarded into his brain was that with all the wonders of science coupled with the limited understanding of people, to have an open mind when out exploring the cosmos.

“I need to know,” said Gabigot. “Do you still love me? Can you still love me?”

This was a question that Carlson had never thought he’d be asked and he didn’t much like it. Could he love Thuuth when she was Gabigot? He was a man who loved women, always had, and now his notions were being challenged. It would have been easier to love Gabigot if he knew for certain that he would change back into Thuuth, that this male body was only temporary. It’s not to say that Carlson only fell in love with Thuuth for her body. Goodness no. He had fallen in love with her for her gregarious personality, her kindly disposition, her inquisitive nature, and a brilliant mind that laid dormant, just ready to be woken up. Then again, those were features that could never be taken unless Gabigot changed his personality for the worst. But when it came to sexually attraction, Carlson was straight and he could do nothing to alter that orientation.

Mind made up, Carlson stared Gabigot straight in the eyes, took his hands and said, “Thuuth, I know you are in there, and I have a feeling you will always be in there, even if your body never changes back to what it was before. So relax. I will always love you, Thuuth. I will love you now and I will love you forever.”

“I don’t know if Thuuth will ever come back,” said Gabigot.

“I don’t think she ever left,” said Carlson.

“So, you still do love me?”

“Yes. And I always will. As for reverting back to female, we’ll see what happens. Besides, a romance doesn’t have to be physical. Are you okay with that?”

That old twinkle sparkled in Thuuth’s eyes, and Carlson felt like he was looking back at how he first saw her when he first met her. “Yes, of course, that’s okay.” Thuuth, in the rough arms and body of Gabigot, held Carlson tight and Carlson returned the embrace, feeling Thuuth under that body.

“And you’re not a freak,” Carlson said. “I’m sorry I ever used that analogy.”

And for the rest of the night, the two of them sat on the balcony, looked up at the moons, and thought about what could be.

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Change Like the Tides: very rough draft

 

pexels-photo-189349.jpg

Body of Water During Golden Hour. Copyright by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels Photo.


This is an incomplete, very rough draft. 

Kirk Carlson was excited for his shore-leave to Jybogia, a planet dominated by mainly water. With a surface covered in 95 percent water, it made the 71 percent of earth covered in water look pathetic. From out the porthole, he could see the planet radiating like a blue gemstone.

It had been a long two weeks with the Interplanetary Expedition (IX) in researching the soil of a desert planet at 600 million light-years away. Even with the warping of space, it still felt like a long trip. Sure, the IX Explorer was equipped with virtual reality wires that sent someone to sleep, thus manipulating dreams into games, but it was still shades and not reality in and of itself. It got boring. But it didn’t get as boring as the expedition to the desert planet that Carlson and his crewmates had to go on. All for taking soil samples to see if there was once life. Granted, it IX prided itself on exploring all sorts of worlds, some with life, some without life, but some planets were more exciting than ever. Taking soil samples for two weeks hadn’t been Carlson’s idea of a good trip. But this water planet was a different matter. This would be a much-needed vacation.

But it wasn’t so much the planet that he was looking forward to seeing again, although he did find Jybogia to be one of the most fascinating planets they had come across, but Thuuth. Thuuth was a Jybogian.

Upon IX’s later encounter with this semi-aquatic race, they found by taking some DNA samples (voluntarily given) that the Jybogians had 80 percent human DNA, solidifying the theory of panspermia from a common source. The other 20 percent was amphibian DNA. The first meeting with the Jybogians got off to a rocky start, as the translators initially had a hard time deciphering their language. Not easy, considering the crew wanted to learn the language of the native inhabitants to show good graces. Honestly, radio frequencies should have been used to pick up the Jybogian language first to be translated and studied before disembarking on the surface. But protocol had been foolishly ignored in their excitement, and the inhabitants had hid from them in the ocean for five hours, the amount of time they could hold their breaths. Still, after long months trust was earned. Particularly when Carlson and the others offered the Jybogians gifts, which the natives looked at as though they were magical talismans, and started to speak some of the Jybogian’s own language.

It was when trust was established that the crew had been invited to a dinner by the Jybogians. It was a risky endeavor, to be sure. Strange food on a foreign planet; would the human system be able to digest it? Dr. Valerie Brentwood had brought the food analyzer along, but scanning the chemical compounds of the food didn’t negate all the risks. There were occasionally stories of IX members of other ships and crews who died from eating alien food. Thankfully, such was not the case among the Jybogian cuisine. Their dishes of their own fish and their salads of their own sea-plants were not just edible, but tasty.

But it had been the dancers that intrigued most of the crew. They had come out on a platform, if it could be called a platform. It was more like a large stone tub full of water, stuffed with water flowers and planets, including Jybogia’s own type of lily pad. And on the pads danced four young Jybogian women. Lithe and slender, and of different colors, they danced on the pads in a mix that was like a human ballet and the way a fish would dance if fish could dance. Light yellow, pale orange, earth-sky blue, and mint green, dressed in the pink and red petals of sea plants, moved their bodies in a symphony to the music being played, lightly leaping from pad to pad, graceful kicks in the air, to come back to arm and arm (as well as fin and fin; seeing as part of their arms had thin wispy, transparent fins lining them) with one another. It was the most beautiful performance Carlson had ever seen. Even his boss, Captain Gerald Jones, who was a stern man, hard to impress, had been enraptured by the dance.

Carlson had not expected to see the dancers again. But the blue one had asked him, in broken, but understandable English, if she could sit by him. In turn, Carlson had granted her request in broken but understandable Jybogian. That was how he had met Thuuth.

And Carlson soon learned that Thuuth had an appetite that was hungry for the cosmos and all the wonders it held. Carlson had planned to ask her everything he could about Jybogia, but she was more interested in learning about Earth. She couldn’t fathom that there was something called ‘continents, when her planet was made up of a bunch of different islands. She was particularly impressed by the number of land mammals, considering there weren’t any land mammals on her planet. In turn, Carlson couldn’t help but be impressed by the young Jybogian’s gregarious attitude as well as her curiosity. She was incredibly gentle. The friendship she and the rest of her people showed the crew was nothing short of extraordinary, considering there was a lack of trust to begin.

Staring out the window, Carlson could see that the shuttle was rapidly approaching the surface of the big island, out of a long chain of islands. Dubbed the coil, the island chain almost formed a perfect question mark except the top end part of the mark curved downward and then into itself, islands meeting islands. Aside from that, it was nearly a perfect question mark. Even the last dot on the opposite end was spaced far enough apart from the other islands to look like the period portion of a question mark. A bright green one at that. It reminded Carlson of when he lived back on earth and has visited Ireland.

The shuttle came to a landing on a soft pasture of grass and the Carlson un-boarded the ramp with the rest of the crew. That fresh sea breeze hit him, not that much different than earths.

But what was different was the fauna. Carlson never got tired of it. Flowers about twelve feet tall loomed over them. The petals were as big as a dinner plate and they shone a transparent violet when the sun hit them. A violet ray of light was bathing Carlson as he stopped to admire the flowers roots. He loved how the jutted out from the earth and bent over like a bunch of poles to hold up a tent. These huge flowers weren’t all that different than some of the mangroves back on earth. Like the mangroves back home, the violet flowers needed strong roots to withstand the onslaught of not just storms, but the waves. Since the planet had two moons, the tide was much more powerful and stronger, able to cover all the islands, including the big one, during high tide. Underneath the large violet flowers were smaller yellow flowers, glittering like scattered pirate’s gold. Their vines made a covering, wrapping themselves around the roots of the giant flowers. And while the giant flowers protected the smaller ones, the smaller yellow ones helped filter out much of the salt for the bigger ones; a symbiotic relationship if there ever was one.

But the most impressive site was what the Jybogians called the Talylul trees. There were many of them further inland on this island that was only three square miles. Clustering close together for protection from the harsh ocean, Carlson could see them from a mile away. They were tall. About half the size of a full-grown redwood, and their roots and branches curled around one another give each other extra support. It was in spaces between the branches of the trees that the Jybogians built their homes. From this distance, Carlson may as well have been blind, but once he and the crew got up into the foliage, the dwellings would become visible.

“Get your butts moving,” said the gruff voice of Captain Gerald Jones. Carlson could blame the captain’s ill-temper. Like the rest of the crew, he was tired.

“You coming lover-boy?” teased Dr. Brentwood.

“You don’t need to tell me twice,” said Carlson.

All seven members of the crew made their way towards the Jybogian capital within the trees. With heavy luggage, even a mile-long walk could feel like an ordeal. Thankfully, all the luggage, Carlson’s included, were loaded onto a hover pallet, meaning no one had to carry it. The pallet gave off a light humming as it hovered a half-foot off the ground and followed the procession.

“Did anyone remember to activate the force field on the shuttle before we left?” the Captain stopped dead in his tracks.

“Don’t worry, sir,” said one of the crewmates, the engineer Burt Babbit. “I made sure that the force field was activated just as soon as we stepped off the ship.

“Are you sure?”

Carlson had to stifle a laugh. It was amazing that Henderson had ever made the rank of captain. While being vigilant and secure was a virtue, there were times that Henderson almost bordered on obsessive-compulsive to the point that he would go back and check something, including making sure a force field was functioning, again and again. Carlson wanted to see Thuuth, so he hoped this wouldn’t be one of those moments.

“Sir, I promise you, I put in the program myself before we disembarked.”

“I fear high tide. I don’t need forty foot waves washing away the shuttle.”

“I promise you, sir, we are not going to be stranded on this planet. I even looked back to see the force field go up.”

“Fine,” barked Jones. “But if we are stranded here, I’ll throw you to the fishes of this sea.”

The engineer nodded and shrugged.

“He certainly has his uniform on too tight, doesn’t he?” whispered Brentwood. “You’d think that he doesn’t know that IXP headquarters doesn’t know where we are or that they have our DNA safely in a computer bank that they can track us with by sending out a signal to read for our signs.”

“You would think,” Carlson whispered back.

“You would think he was going old and senile and that he forgot his meds,” she chuckled.

Carlson cocked a sly eyebrow at her. “I would think that you as a doctor would make sure he remembered to take them.”

Brentwood laughed.

Jones shot a glare back at them. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing. Just a funny joke Dr. Brentwood told me,” said Carlson.

Grumbling, nerves obviously frayed from the stress of the last trip, the captain kept leading the procession. Meanwhile, Carlson couldn’t help but take a look at the doctor. Beautiful! With her tan skin and black hair. But her personality was incredibly attractive with her wicked sense of humor and easy-going mannerism. If Carlson wasn’t so infatuated with Thuuth, he would have tried to kindle a deeper relationship with Valerie Brentwood.

As it was, Carlson couldn’t contain his excitement. Though a practical man and not a romanticist by nature, he couldn’t help but feel his heart tugging him towards the grove of Talylul trees. He liked to think that he and Thuuth’s heart were just as entangled as the branches of those trees.

Relax, he told himself. Take in the natural beauty of the surroundings. Though he had seen it all before, he never got tired of the rich variety of flora and fauna of Azu. In a deep puddle were some crescent flowers of neon pink and green and resting on them were a type of snail the Jybogian’s called geelaks. These snails had hard shells that were almost the same color as the crescent flowers, enabling them to camaflouge themselves from all the sharp tooth beasties that wanted to eat them. The snails themselves were a dark purple color, with a silver strip running horizontal on their sides. Soon they passed some rocks and boulders, though in truth they were giant blue salt crystals. They glittered like blue ice in the sunlight, but didn’t melt. Perched one of them was a white lizard, a brub, wings two feet long outstretched to absorb the sunlight. Head craned down, as though weighed down by the horn in the middle of its head (though it wasn’t weighed down, as the horn was light and hollow) it looked quizzically at the procession as the passed along.

No matter where Carlson turned his head, there were just too many wonders to see, and though he had seen them all before, it felt like he was looking at it all with the fresh eyes of a child discovering the wonders around him for the first, especially since his trip to the desert planet.

This sense of wonder helped the time pass by and moved him closer to his goal, until he was the Talylul tree grove. High up, the trees towered over him with many branches knotted around one another in a firm grip to withstand the raging waters at high tide. Carlson touched the silver bark of one of the trees, smooth under his fingertips. If not for the branches, he didn’t know how anyone could climb these trees. For that matter, even if the branches, it was slick enough that he wasn’t sure how even the most nimble of human children could grip onto them without slipping and falling on their backs. But the Jybogians were different. Light and nimble, they were good jumpers as well as good swimmers. Notwithstanding, they still didn’t like always jump. Sometimes they were too tired after a day of fishing and hunting for birds that they just wanted to conserve their energy and take the makeshift elevator up. This was not just beneficial for the Jybogians, but serendipitous for people like Carlson.

The makeshift elevator, attached to a long vine and operated with a crank, came down and out of the wicker basket stepped out Jubul, the advisor to the chief of this tribe of Jybogians and well respected among all of them. Carlson had seen him before landing. The advisor was conspicuous among the green foliage of the trees with his red skin.

In near-perfect English he said, “Ah, friend Jones, Brentwood, Carlson, Babbit, Suski, Griffith, and Morgan, welcome, welcome! It’s always so good to have your company. Will you be needing lodging for the night?”

“If it’s agreeable with the chief, we were hoping for a couple of weeks,” said Jones. We are on shore-leave.”

Carlson had to give the captain credit. Despite his prickly nature, he could be quiet diplomatic when need be. Of course, he had to be. IXP’s goal was good relations with all life-forms, and if a captain acted up, he or she would be demoted faster than light sucked into a black hole.

“But of course,” said Jubul. “Chief Biguk has instructed me that you are all to be our honored guests as long as you wish, and not to bother him over such trivialities of when you come and go. You know, he is still fond of the gift you gave him. For that matter,” and the advisor reached into the pocket of his leafy smock to bring out a small, circular holo-projector that fit perfectly in the interior of the palm. An image of a wife in a long leafy dress holding a child popped up; Jubul’s wife and child. “Because of your lovely gift, I can take my wife and child with me wherever I go, in a sense I can that is.”

With pleasantries out of the way, people were then loaded two at a time up the wicker basket. Carlson was one of the last to get in. Up he went, past the tangled branches and the leaves as thick and as wide as him. Knock, knock, went the wicker basket, sometimes bumping up against branches and leaves. Immersed in a jungle, it was hard to tell that they were 80 feet up, and that the trees rose 150 feet at the highest points.

Wrapped still among the leaves and shadowed by the branches, he was now on the platform where a stairway lead up to the first wooden structure, the welcome hall of the gods where the Jybogian’s had carved idols out of salt of all their gods. Walking through that hall, Carlson and company came to the exit where wood bridges and steps branched off in in every direction through the branches and to the different structures. Here the crew split up, leaving Carlson to do his own thing. Everyone knew where the guest quarters were, and Carlson knew that Thuuth was likely in one of two places, her home or the performance hall.

Remembering that Thuuth usually performed in the evening, and it was still midday, and it would be a midday for a long time as the two moons slowed down Azu’s rotation, he decided to try her hut. Traversing the path, Carlson found himself having that same wild, exhilarating sense of freedom he first felt when he arrived. He was a kid again, and though he had walked these paths many times during his last visit, it all felt new and fresh, as if he were exploring a tree fort anew, in which anything could happen. First he walked a solid bridge leading from one large branch to another, then a longer wooden bridge greeted him, a rope bridge, swinging from the light breeze. Carlson held tight to the vine ropes of the bridge and steadies himself as he walked across. In a flash of fluttering color likes leaves blown in the Autumn wind, orange, gold, and yellow neekal birds took flight, taking away Carlson’s breath. Resuming his walk, he came to the wooden planks that were nailed into a huge tree, forming a set of stairs that wound around the tree.

He walked up the planks until he was a good twenty feet higher up than before. There, nestled in the crevice of where the branches branched out even further and where other stairways lead up to other huts. A silk curtain, or a material that was like a silk, hung at Thuuth’s doorway. Regardless, the material for the doorway came from worms, but these black worms were as large as cats, covered in spines, and highly toxic.

“Thuuth, I’m back,” he called out excitedly. No answer.

He moved aside the curtain and looked inside. Her cot with silk blankets was at one side, (there were no fur blankets, but there didn’t need to be; due to the planet mainly being water to regulate the temperature, it never got that cold) was undisturbed. Her little table with salt crystal idols was over at the other side. Neat and tidy, just like she liked it.

No matter. The performance center wasn’t far from her home. Carlson walked up the steps of one of the nearby branches and then crossed a bridge to another tree. Winding his way further up another set of stairs, he came to the performance center. It was just like he remembered seeing when he saw Thuuth first perform, with the purple curtain hanging on the door frame and the etchings of the native wildlife on the door frame. He walked through the door, under the slanted roof with a carved symbol of a dancer.

Inside were the dancers practicing over that same stone pond that he had watched them perform over during his last visit, and sitting in front on a wooden chair was Thuuth. He could recognize that blue skin and the shape of the head.

“Thuuth,” her name bubbled out from the confines of his soul, gushing forth joyfully. “Thuuth, I’ve missed you.”

She turned her head and looked at him with those same pale white eyes. How beautiful! How elegant! How a humanoid creature that was primarily human in form but with a little bit of amphibian could look so lovely.

“I’m afraid you’re mistaken,” the Jybogian said in a deep, masculine voice.

“I’m sorry,” Carlson apologized. “It’s just you look so much like her.” He bit his tongue and blushed, fearing that his words may have come across as offense. People back on earth didn’t like being mistaken for the opposite sex. He couldn’t imagine Jybogians would feel any different. “Again, I’m sorry. I seem to be a real klutz.”

The man shrugged and stood up from his chair. He wore a long leaf tunic, his bare arms exposed. He had exactly the same fin structure down his arms as well as the same webbed fingers and toes that Thuuth had.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s obvious why we would look alike. I’m her twin brother.”

“She never told me she had a twin.”

“She couldn’t speak very good English then.”

Carlson nodded in agreement. “Can she speak good English now? You speak perfect English.”

“Thank you. I practiced with the translators you left us. How about you? Can you speak perfect Jybogian?”

If Carlson had been embarrassed before, he was ten-fold now; the blood running to his face. He felt like a bad guest not taking more time to learn their language. “No, I’m afraid I can’t.”

Again, the male Jybogian shrugged as it to assure Carlson that it wasn’t that big of a deal. “No matter,” he said. “You’ll see Thuuth when she comes back, if she comes back.”

“What do you mean if?” Carlson felt a sick sensation creep into his stomach. He had heard stories about Jybogians going on dangerous quests to prove themselves to their gods, but he didn’t know that the females did it too.

“She is on a long journey, swimming a great distance to the land of our ancestors in order to commune with them. It’s not an easy journey. The seas are full of dangerous creatures who make us their diets.”

“I guess I could try tracking her,” said Carlson.

“She is not to be disturbed. Would you dishonor our traditions?” he glared at Carlson angrily.

Carlson gulped. No, of course he wouldn’t. IXP had a strict code of respecting other cultures. Interacting with them was permissible, but breaking the codes they lived by was not. “I’m sorry. Once again I have shown ignorance.”

“Don’t let it trouble you any further,” the man’s face softened. “I worry about her, too. But we must respect the traditions of our ancestors. Now, I’m afraid I’m at a loss; you are?”

“Kirk Carlson.”

“Ah, nice to meet you. I am Gabigot. If things go well, my sister should be back in another month.”

Carlson’s heart sunk even further. He only had two weeks on the planet. “Any chance she could come back sooner?”

“Perhaps, but not likely.”

To be corrected and continued.

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Dead Men Tell Tales: rough draft

 

Skeleton_of_Urizen_from_A_Small_Book_of_Designs,_object_13_(Bentley_136-13,_Butlin_260-13)

Art by William Blake.


Recommended for ages 13 and up for morbid subject matter and involving a child.

Spring, sunlight, fresh flowers. It’s a time when the sun reaches down its rays and thaws away the ice, banishing the winter. The earth is reborn again.

Elizabeth Fairweather loved the spring and she loved spending it at her grandma’s out in the countryside. Her father had just dropped her off at her grandma’s house, and Elizabeth was excited. Elizabeth, having recently turned eight, joyfully bounded out of her father’s pickup truck, youthful vigor driving her forward, her neon green and yellow sundress flapping like a blur of light, the straw hat on her head almost blowing off, to the front porch and into her grandma’s arms.

“Oh, how beautiful you are growing,” her grandma reached out an old withered hand to brush Elizabeth’s bright red hair, and to run her old fingers down a young freckled face, kissed by the sun. They were gentle hands. Hands that had toiled long and hard, sacrificing for a family she loved. Hands that comforted the sick when she was a nurse. Hands that held newborn infants and comforted new moms. Hands that had left their mark on the world for the better.

Grandma Fairweather held Elizabeth tightly, and Elizabeth sunk deep into her bosom. Two generations of Fairweathers bound together with an unbreakable bond. Grandma Fairweather often aid that Elizabeth was the splitting image of herself when she was a child, both in mannerisms and looks. Elizabeth often wanted to grow up to be like her grandmother, a strong, kindly woman.

“How are you doing, Lizzy, dear?” Grandma Fairweather stroked her hair.

“I’m doing great, Grand-mama,” said Elizabeth.

The pickup truck backed out of the dirt driveway as Elizabeth’s father waved her goodbye.

“Would you like some cookies and lemonade,” her grandma asked her.

“I’d rather have some cookies and milk, if it’s not too much trouble, Grand-mama.”

“Of course not, dear. You come inside and you make yourself comfortable.”

Elizabeth followed her grandma into what was more than just an old house, but a gateway to the past. Inside was an old rotary phone, still attached to a line, an old 1970s television set, 1970s and early 80s furniture, including an ugly beige couch, and old books crammed into bookshelves. And that was only the living room, where the walls were still covered in 1970s psychedelic flower-power, orange and red wall paper. In the kitchen was a wall oven and a stove top dating back from the 1960s.

“Can I help you at all, grand-mama?”

“No, you just relax, dear,” the old woman said. “I’ve got this taken care of.”

Elizabeth took a seat at the kitchen table as her grandma got the Tupperware full to the brim with cookies and a pitcher of cold lemonade out. In the middle of the table was a picture of her grandma and her grandpa when they were young, in their early 30s, back in the early 70s. They looked so content together, like they found a happiness that could last forever. He with his right arm over her shoulders. She leaning into him, her face against his chest as she smiled. Both of them dressed for their wedding. Aside from Grandma Fairweather, the old photos that were peppered around the house were Elizabeth’s favorite thing about this old home. The photos were everywhere, in frames hanging from the walls, in frames on bookcases, tables, and nightstands, even attached without frames to the fridge with magnets. In the living room, through the hall, in the bedrooms, and in the kitchen. Photos of old aunts and uncles who had passed, some of old age, some from a war. Photos of children and grandchildren. Some of vacations and some of family birthday parties. But all of them reminders of precious moments consigned to the past, of loved ones lost. Elizabeth knew that her grandma especially missed her husband grandpa Fairweather, who had died before Elizabeth was born.

Elizabeth’s grandma came back with a plate of cookies and a glass of lemonade. “If you want anymore, you just tell me.”

“Thank you so much,” Elizabeth said, a wide smile crossing her face as she voraciously consumed a cookie from her plate. Chocolate chip! Her favorite!

She looked up at her grandma who was smiling gently at her. Elizabeth liked to think that all the lines on her grandma’s face that moved in unison with her smile were left over smiles from so many years of joy. And those eyes, they didn’t look the least bit cloudy. They still shone bright, like they trapped the light of childhood. How Elizabeth loved her.

For the remainder of the morning and early afternoon, Elizabeth helped her grandma around the house, even though her grandma insisted that she didn’t have to. Of course, the chores, which weren’t backbreaking to begin with, were finished that much faster because of Elizabeth’s help. Until about 3 PM, she spent time talking with her grandma as they worked on putting together a puzzle. The two of them then played card games until dinner, in which Elizabeth helped her grandma. After dinner, it was bedtime.

Elizabeth was sleeping in the upstairs bedroom when she heard a tapping on the window near her bed. She rubbed her eyes and looked over at the window. She didn’t see anyone knocking on it. However, the moonlight illuminated the dead ok that was at the side of the house. One of the oak’s twisted branches was only a couple of feet away from Elizabeth’s window, and on it, glittering like black ebony under the moonlight, was a crow.

Caw, caw, caw, the crow said. Caw, caw, caw.

Elizabeth stared at the fowl. For some reason it made her uneasy. Caw, caw, caw, caw, kill, kill, kill. Elizabeth hid under her covers, hoping the bird would fly away.

When she looked out from the covers, the crow was gone. She chalked it up as just a bad dream before falling back to sleep.

The next day, Elizabeth went to town to shop with her grandma. When they got back at 3, she told her grandma that she wanted to go outside and explore nature. To this her grandma consented, but told her to stay close by, keeping her range within the fields and the meadows, and not to approach the tree line. Elizabeth happily agreed.

She ran outside, her legs carrying her to the hills behind her grandma’s house. The sun felt like love and warmth hugging her body, and a gentle breeze tempered what could have been unbearable heat. White dandelion petals were blown by the breeze, swirling through the air in a pattern like they were a flock of fairies. From atop the first hill, Elizabeth obtained a perfect view of the meadow and its hillsides covered in fresh grass dotted with yellow, red, and purple flowers. In the far distance, she could see the tree-line and the mountains. Elizabeth would honor Grandma Fairweather’s wishes to stay in the meadows. Though the mountains, their peaks still covered in snow, looked inviting.

Elizabeth ran and tumbled down the hills, not caring if her summer dress got torn or dirty. She was just happy to be outside among the flowers and under a sky of azure blue with clouds puffed up like white cotton candy. She picked some flowers from all the colors that the meadow offered and made herself a wreath for her head. It was something that her grandma had taught her, something that she had learned at some place called Woodstock. Come to think of it, she would make two flower crowns, one for her and one for grandma too. She was giggling while making the crowns when a big butterfly passed by, bright yellow with black stripes. Closer examination showed that there were numerous butterflies fluttering about, of all different colors. They were slating their thirst with the nectar from the flowers or they were flapping their wings in colorful unison in the air.

But it was the yellow and black striped one that locked onto Elizabeth’s eyes, catching her childlike wonder in its own net. It made her think of a flying tiger. And with that thought, she laughed at the absurdity of all it. Watch out, all you other butterflies. I’m a tiger with wings and I’m going to eat you. She decided to chase after the butterfly, grasping her crowns as she did so. She chased it over the hills. Those wings, they were hypnotizing her, pulling her like a puppet on strings. She had lost track of the time as she chased the butterfly over another hill, and another, and another.

At the top of one of the hill, Elizabeth lost her balance and she went tumbling down the small slope in front of her. It startled her but she was okay, though a bit dazed.

When she came to, she found she was still within the field of flowers. But that’s not all that was there.

The bright foliage couldn’t obscure the horror in front of her. Laying on her back, she learned as much when she reached her hand to her side and touched something that felt dry and brittle. She picked it up, initially with the idea that it was an odd shaped rock. Such was not the case. Bleached white, as though having laid to rest for years, were the intact bones of a hand, the finger bones perfectly attached to it. Elizabeth dropped them, her eyes widening and her heart thumping as she sat up.

Right beside her, nestled in the flowers, was an adult skeleton. Its rib caged was split open. In-between the separated ribs grew bright red flowers. There were sparse sections of the flowers where she could see a mangled and twisted spine. The right arm and hand bones, from the side she didn’t land by, were detached from the skeleton and spread about not far from each other. The pelvis was twisted, along with the lower spine, at an abnormal angle. The left leg bones were broken apart where the kneecap met, and the right leg wasn’t even there. It was as if it had been torn and taken out by some creature or someone.

But it was the skull that that Elizabeth found most unsettling. It stared up at her with hollow eyes. A face, if it could be called such, smiled at her sickly. There was a large crack running down the left side of the skull, down to near the jawbone. That smile, it was as though it was laughing at Elizabeth. And the eye sockets, despite being devoid of eyes, peered deep into her, peeling away the layers of her skin and flesh in order to reach her heart. In turn, she peered deep into those empty sockets, falling into them as though they were an eternal abyss.

Knot in her throat, she forced it down to ask the dead how he or she died. And she could swear the skull, though its mouth remained closed, was speaking to her. How did I die? Who’s to say? Maybe I died of old age, and some animals pulled my corpse apart. Maybe I was out walking in the wood nearby when a bear came out and mauled me. Or perhaps I was alone in my house when someone broke in, robbed me, and beat and chopped me up, only to dump my body out here. Then again, it could have been someone who just hit me with truck, and too ashamed to face the facts, took my mangled body out this pleasant meadow. Who knows? So many ways to die.

               Elizabeth, paralyzed with fear, was only able to scoot back on her bottom only a few spaces. Those empty eyes and that hideous grin held her. Oh, you’re so beautiful. So young, so naïve. Don’t get too comfortable, my pretty. Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. It isn’t all love and laughter. That pretty red hair will gray. Your skin will wrinkle and sag. That’s if you’re lucky. Who’s to say you won’t be hit by a bus at school? The dice may be rolled landing on you getting struck by lightning. That’s not uncommon. Maybe fate will dictate that you will be killed by a rabid dog. Death might draw a card, the fool, in which you are foolish enough to choose the wrong man. A man who will kill you instead of love you. It matters not. Either way, the earth calls for you. It calls for all. And all must submit to the portal of the dead. This has fate decreed.

               Elizabeth felt a wind coming from in front of her. She looked up to see that the forest was only ten feet away from her. It didn’t look inviting in the least. The trees closed in together, the branches shuddered under the wind, and they groaned like they were giving homage to oncoming darkness. Was there something in the forest?

In answer to her question, the skeleton said, there is death everywhere.

Then, with a fluttering of wings, out from the right eye socket that same crow that Elizabeth saw the night before hopped out. And in a different voice than that of the skeleton, it said Caw, caw, caw… kill, before flapping its wings and flying off.

               Shocked, Elizabeth ran back up the hill. It was getting late. She could see the sun setting in the distance. Night quickly approaching. Thankfully, she could still see the home, though it looked so far from where she was.

With no time to spare, she ran as quickly as her little legs could carry her. The hills, which had once looked lush and green under the sunlight, were now dark under the coming nightfall. She had to get back.

And return to her home, she did. It was amazing at how rapidly Elizabeth was able to run.

She flung open the front door and rushed into the house, yelling “Grand-mama. Grandma-mama. Are you home? I’m sorry I’m late.”

No answer.

Elizabeth, heart thumping, blood flowing, sweat pouring down her locks of hair and staining her face and sundress, walked to the living room in the hopes that her grandma was there, sitting in her favorite chair and giving her the silent treatment. She would absolutely deserve it.

Only a dim lamp on a small end table was on in the living room, with the rest of the surroundings wrapped in blackness. The end table was by her grandma’s favorite chair, the club chair. And from the right of the club chair, its back facing Elizabeth, her grandma’s arm could be seen hanging down.

“Grand-mama?” Elizabeth asked, her feet lightly touching the floor in trepidation. “Are you okay? It’s me Elizabeth. I’m home.”

When Elizabeth got to the chair, she took Grandma Fairweather’s hand and said, “Grand-mama?” Her grandma’s hand was cold and stiff. “Grand-mama.”

Elizabeth looked at the front of her chair, to see her grandma lying there lifeless, her eyes without light. Death had arrived and taken what was his.

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Twitter: A High School Popularity Contest

I created a Twitter account to promote my writing, in the hopes that I would get more readers and more feedback, and hopefully a few patrons for my Patreon account. Sometimes I wonder if it was worth it. To be honest, I hate it. It feels like a high school popularity contest, that time of life when one is trying desperately hard to gain followers and recognition.

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Yep, being almost by yourself on Twitter, while everyone else is hanging with the cool users. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Arief Rahman Saan (Ezagren). Lonely Boy.

There can be a huge lack of followers.
It’s true. You can post status after status, and it feels like no one is following you. Sure, your Twitter account may mention that you have a huge number of followers. But Twitter is a pathological liar, or those using Twitter are. Mark Twain said that there are three kinds of lies, and they are “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Twitter falls into the worst category, the last. Just because someone clicked on follow, doesn’t mean they are actually following you. Which means that…..

 

 

 

 

More often than not, they click on follow in the hopes to gain followers in turn.
But I mean, hey, can you blame them? It’s the classic you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours mentality. We hope that in helping someone else out that they will help us out. In a writer’s case, we hope that they will support us and our writing. Maybe they will click on a link to our blog so that they will offer feedback. I’ve had one or two people do that. One lady offered me praise. It was wonderful. It was akin to finding an oasis in a hot barren desert. But more often than not I am wandering alone through this Twitter desert, hoping to quench my thirst with feedback, constructive criticism, and praise, only to find I am, more often than not, alone.

Interacting with your followers and non-followers is often a one-way relationship.
Comment on their posts and 90 percent of the time these fellow struggling writers are likely to respond back. Yet the feelings are not reciprocal. Most are not likely to go onto your wall and interact with you in turn.  Then again, how can their feelings be reciprocal? They have so many followers that they can’t interact with everyone’s post or read everyone’s work. They just don’t have the time. Hence a one-way relationship is usually formed.

Try different types of posts in hopes of better interaction and feedback, good luck. 
For some reason that I can’t fathom some users have more success than others. You get Twitter users who have huge followings and others who have very low. It makes no difference if you post the absurd, some silly meme or gif, a link to a story you wrote,  a poll, or you talk about something relevant to life. Chances are unless you are one of the naturally charismatic Twitter users most people are going to ignore you.

In short, it becomes a high school popularity contest. It’s about the number of likes, the number of “true” followers who interact. Instead of working on short stories one is taking on the role of a salesperson, trying to promote his or her own work. To do so on Twitter one must be popular. And to be popular sometimes one must be…..

Stupid or willing to glorify in stupidity.
I’m serious. It enrages me to no end to see the number of people who post stupid crap and have a huge interactive group of followers because of it. Most people don’t appreciate art, beauty, human emotion, or philosophy. Society glorifies shallow thinking, mass-producing citizens as mindless drones. The most loved people on Twitter tend to be those who post angry conservative or liberal political rants 24/7, or amateur porn stars who sell their bodies as well as their souls. It’s the people who talk about sports, fashion, or celebrity gossip that hook a majority. People striving to create great literature, forget it!

To those who may protest, I am well aware that brilliant authors like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Robin Hobb, and so forth have very active Twitter accounts and that they are lauded by the Twitter community. But they already achieved fame, so they have a step above many of the struggling writers. (Note: I am a huge fan of all three authors, having their books on my shelves, so what I’ve said isn’t meant to be interpreted as being said discouragingly against them)

Of course, I previously mentioned that beginning writers can make it if they have a charisma to them that not all of us have.

 

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The popular Twitter users. It’s like high school.

Is it worth it?
Twitter is often touted as a great platform to promote oneself. And while it’s true that there are lots of small-time (as well as large) editors and publishing firms who make their homes on Twitter, many of who (especially the smaller firms) will offer their services to you, the site still seems like a huge time-waster than anything else. These publishing firms and editors can be found on other forums or through a search engine instead of the user having to spend time on Twitter.

Also, all the time spent on Twitter, just in the hopes that one might gain a few more ‘serious’ followers could be used in writing and rewriting. I can’t enumerate the time I have wasted on social media trying to promote myself. Times that I could have been writing. Times I could have been developing characters and creating vast new worlds. Times I could have been crafting intriguing and exciting stories to settle my mind and calm my nerves.

Is Twitter really worth it?

Surely there are other ways to promote oneself. Why not go to a bookstore and a library, and ask permission to promote yourself? That way you get to meet people face to face and leave an impression that can’t be left online. Save up some money, if possible, and use it to travel and promote your book. That way you can at least see different parts of the country or the world while doing so.

In conclusion, SCREW TWITTER. I am thinking of getting rid of it. I’m tired of this high school popularity contest.

 

 

A Message in a Frame: Finding Meaning in Art

I have loved art for a long time. Plato called art a vile deception, declaring that it was a copy of another copy, being even further removed from the good, the most perfect of forms. However, what if art is a portal, helping artists show the world what the noumenal reality is? I confess that what I am stating is in the realms of metaphysics, but still fun to think about.

The point is, art inspires me. It always has. It takes my mind to new possibilities and transcends my mind to new worlds. It helps me with my writing, and I would say that certain artists have been just as much of an influence on me as certain writers.

So, what better way to show my love for art than starting my own posts on Medium about it. I have entitled my publication Reflections in the Portrait because we can all see ourselves, discovering our desires and human nature, in art.

My first post is about Impressionism. Give it a read and see what you think. And if you like it, I ask for two small favors that will help me immensely. First, follow me. That way you can see read my upcoming posts about art. Second, there is an icon button of a pair of hands clapping. Click on the “clap” icon as much as you wish. If you think my writing is worth one clap then it’s worth one clap, if two claps then it’s worth two claps, if it’s five then five, ten then ten, twenty or more then twenty or more. If you think my writing isn’t worth any claps that’s fine, too.

I invite you all to check out Reflections in the Portrait. Thank you.

View at Medium.com

Song of the Soul: rough draft

 

A rough draft, but let me know what you think. 

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Stories from the Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

In medieval Persia,  a time when myth and magic reigned supreme, in which men feared for their lives from evil djinn, and explorers searched for hidden caves full of treasure, there was a great kingdom in the middle of the vast desert.

The sultan of this kingdom was rich. In his treasury were ebony statues of warriors that could come to life and fight for him in a war. There were exquisite flying carpets which soared high into the heavens. Birds carved out of jade feasted on trees that grew emerald leaves and bore ruby pomegranates and diamond figs. These were just but a few of the marvelous treasures that the sultan owned, and he gave thanks to Allah for his bounty.

But outside the palace walls, the people didn’t fare so well. They majority of the population lived in rundown buildings, and tried to live their daily lives either by cobbling, sewing, vending, or in the worst case living on the streets. The fortunate ones were the rich merchants, to which the lower class merchants struggled against. However, not all of the lower class and homeless were miserable.

Despite his old age and his life of hardships, Payim was still happy. He had his chang (a harp) that his mother had given to him before she had died. Whenever he ran his fingers through the strings, he could hear his mother’s voice singing sweetly and softly, bringing serenity to his soul. At age eighty, he stood on the street corner of the main market, making music to sooth the souls of the masses who had lost humanity in their will to survive. Among the greedy hands, hungry for merchandise, starving for fine material possessions, or just the humblest of the dust, who desired nothing more than a decent meal, there were those who heard his music, the voice of the siren’s strings, and were elevated to a moment of pure bliss. They would put aside their petty squabbles at the stalls, and make their way over to listen to Payim where they would be further enraptured by his gift, blessed to him from Allah above.

But not all appreciated Payam’s gifts. These were mainly the rich merchants. Because of the deafness of their ears, they esteemed the old man’s music not as a lullaby to sooth the beast that bellowed in their hearts, but as the braying of a donkey. They wanted nothing more than that menace of the musician to cease. The sultan agreed with his money-driven subjects, issuing a decree that music must not be played in, or anywhere near, the marketplace. The only music appropriate for the market were the ballads of the auctioneers naming the prices and the jingle of coins landing on counters. Many also found it to be an inconvenience that Payim stood in the only green area of the kingdom, on the corner arrayed in palms and fruit trees and bright flowers. A little oasis had also formed where Payam played, a small silver mirror surrounded by a sea of sand and stucco. There were merchants who coveted that area to peddle their wares.

One day the sultan’s guards caught Payam playing. “You have been a burden for long enough, old man. You have been asked time and time again to not make such noise.”

“Would you take joy away from the people?” asked Payam.

“Let him play,” protested the audience and the poorer merchants.

“You know the law,” the guard said. “Let this be a warning. Play at your own risk.”

But Payam ignored the warning as though it was just the buzzing of an irritating fly. He kept his corner and from there he played his harp. One day the merchants had enough and summoned the guards. “You know the sultan’s decree. Do your job and put an end to this riff-raff’s playing.”

What was once a sweet symphony became a harmony of discord as the old musician’s instrument wailed and groaned in pain, splintering into many pieces on the street. “You were warned,” said the guard curtly.

Payam rushed to gather the broken fragments. His harp was in splinters and so was his livelihood. Cradling the pieces in his hands, he took them back to his hovel, built of mud and sticks. Cracks ran through it, welcoming the insects that shared Payam’s straw bed. Inside, under the sickly yellow rays, swarming with dust, Payam worked on fixing his chang. But he didn’t know how to. He tried repairing it with wattle and daub, but those weren’t meant for repairing instruments. Even if he managed to fix the frame, the strings were had been torn asunder. Be that as it may, the broken strings of his instrument were a trivial matter compared to the broken strings of his heart.

There were many who missed Payam and his playing, but not the wealthy merchants. The majority of them fought for the right to sells their wares on the green corner where Payam had played. In the end, only two of the richest merchants were given permission from the sultan to plant their stalls among the fronds and near the water. However, shortly after, the small oasis sunk down into the earth, withdrawing to its home for a long slumber. Without the water, the sand ruled as king and tyrant, and the plants bowed in submission to it, turning back into the dust from whence they came.

Meanwhile, unknown to Payam, skilled hands were crafting him another chang. For not all merchants were enslaved to pouches of gold. A few, like Arman were content with their own golden hearts. A middle-aged merchant with a bellowing laugh, a bushy mustache resting comfortably under a bulbous nose, and a bulging belly that burst forth in bellowing laughter, Arman was as pious as he was jovial. His life was guided by the Quran, particularly by Quran 34:39 about whatsoever someone spent on anything, God would replace it. But God didn’t work alone. From using Muhammed, peace be upon him, to give his vision to the whole of humanity, Allah expected all of his children to be give back generously in his name. Allah had played the strings of Payam’s life as effectively as Payam had played his chang; music springing forth from the same fountain. Soon that music would pour out freely again, giving life to the desert.

Finished with the chang, Arman wasted no time in delivering it to Payam. But the old musician just looked at the chang without any music in his eyes. “I am a broken man, though I thank you for the offer,” Payam declined the gift.

“Brother, there are those who are in need of your gifts,” Arman said, trying to force the chang in Payam’s hands.

“For what purpose? My chang was more than a harp. It was a reminder of my mother who gave it to before she died. I saw her die once, only to see her die a second time.”

“It is true that I wield not the soul of your mother,” Arman said, looking at him with understanding eyes. “But Allah is good, and he has guided me in creating you another harp. Please, give it a try.”

Payam looked at the instrument. The harp was carved most gracefully, the curves like a maiden in movement. He strummed the strings and the sound that soared forth was that of a chorus of angels. Music was once again made manifest in the musician’s eyes and his countenance again became like that of youth.

“You do realize that if play this music, the guards will smash my harp again. Maybe even imprison me,” warned Payam.

“If you don’t bless the world with your music, then we are all imprisoned,” countered Arman.

Knowing that what the merchant said was true, the musician carried out his chang to the corner. But the wealthy merchants were there, and they glared at him. Payam was forced to find another corner, one he hadn’t performed on before. He took a deep breath and began to play. His fingers glided across the strings like a fish through a stream. The stared at him with coals for eyes, angered at the loss of their customers. Everyone else stood transfixed to the message that the music promulgated, a message devoid of words, but not of meaning.

Then, down the streets, two golden camels, one in the front, one in the back, trotted up. Opulent sofa covers, blue sapphire like the evening sky, crowned their humps. Between the camels, on a set of poles, was a palanquin. It glittered golden under the sunlight. The servant, dressed in rich embroideries, leading the camels came to a halt at the sight of the old musician. From inside the palanquin came a voice of anger, and not even the curtains, decorated in geometric patterns, could muffle the disapproval.

“Who dares disturb the peace?” the sultan boomed.

“Forgive us,” said one of the guards, kneeling at the palanquin. “It’s a musician we had problems with before. We broke his chang, but he now seems to have a new one.”

“Is that so? Such insolence! If he wishes to be stubborn like a mule, let’s behead him.”

“You shall do no such thing,” another voice said from inside the palanquin. It was gentle, but firm; a soft voice that could halt an army and set the coward’s heart aflame in courage.

“But, my canary, my starlight, this man broke the law, not just once, but twice,” the sultan said, but his voice wavered.

“Tell me, father, is money law or justice law?”

“Well I” –

“Deviate from the path of righteousness and justice and you shall answer to God.”

“It’s just” –

“With your hoard of treasures, some magical and some mundane, you refuse to contribute to zakat. Imagine what Muhammed would say to you. With your enchanted stone warriors who move, your carpets that fly, and your treasure chests that magically replenish themselves with treasure every full moon, Muhammed would condemn you of idolatry, like the idols at Mecca he destroyed.”

“But dear,” and the sultan, his voice losing strength, “he’s just a vagabond with a harp.”

“A harp that is more magical than any of your treasures,” pointed out his daughter. “Allah has blessed him, and in turn this man has blessed the people, turning their hearts from riches to the heavens.”

There was a pause, a long drawn out sigh, and suddenly a concession. “As you wish, Firuzeh, dear. I make a promise never to harm this man and to let him play music to his heart’s content.”

And so it was. Payam was allowed to play. When Payam left for the evening, grass had sprung under his feet, and a small trickle of water burst forth from the ground, accompanied by the sapling of a new pomegranate tree.

From then on, the old musician took his music all throughout the kingdom, and wherever he played, the plants and the waters, which lay in a deep slumber in the earth, woke up, roused by the touching music that issued forth from his harp. The kingdom began to bloom as a rose, transformed into an oasis in an ocean of never-ending sand and all were made rich.

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Meandering Meaninglously on Medium

While I work diligently on arriving at the point to where I can publish my books, I have figured that I might as well write on Medium on the side. But seriously! Sometimes I just don’t know what I’m doing. Recently, I shared my thoughts about donating money to rebuild Notre Dame, particularly by the rich. My meaningless meanderings can be read here.

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Notre Dame Cathedral at Night: Image by Sanchezn from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Cold Shades Ch 1: Revised but still imperfect

A revised edition of the first chapter of my dystopian novel I’m working on. Still imperfect. Still needs some editing. Recommended for ages 18 and up for strong language, violence, and mature themes. 

Rebecca Brown, simply known as Becca, rarely left her home. There was no need to. All of the necessities of life were supplied right at her fingertips. She could even engage in her career in her living room, without having to worry about house work, seeing as there were house bots that would clean and cook for her.

At the moment, Becca was typing on her computer screen, but not in the archaic method with her fingers on a keyboard, in which words appeared on a physical screen. Instead, the computer monitor was a slender hologram popping out from the slit of a small, flat device that she could fit in the palm of her hand. It rested on her table top, and it was pumping out fresh words she was thinking from a chip imbedded in her brain. If she needed to delete something, all she had to do was clench her fist and say, “delete.” In this case, she told the program to “delete the third paragraph.” She had been composing an email to an irate customer, and the third paragraph she wrote had been particularly volatile. There would be much deleting ahead.

It was hard working with idiots, day in and day out, and that was putting it lightly. It was overwhelming.

The soft buzz of robotics hummed gently in the air, helping to soothe her temper just a bit. After all, they were a blessing by keeping up her house so she could focus on her work. When she was done with a dish, she didn’t have to rinse it off and put it in the dishwasher. A mechanical arm and hand near the kitchen sink would take it from her. And that arm and hand could stretch far, far enough to reach each of the rooms. The faucet would turn on by itself, unleashing a light laser that would burn off the food and then de-germ it with a light spray. Scrub beetles would burn away grime from her kitchen floor. There were even bots in the bathroom to do the dirty work of cleaning. Robots, the size of mice, even nested in the walls. If a crack formed, the bots would make the needed repairs.

Her stomach grumbled, letting her know in no uncertain terms that it needed nourishment. A break was in order.

“Restaurants,” Becca said, causing a holographic image to project a list of local eateries. “Chinese,” she continued, realizing she hadn’t had one of her favorite meals in a while; sweet and sour pork. The computer narrowed her choices solely to those catering in Chinese food. “Mrs. Yang’s” she said. Projecting straight out of the little computer box, right into her living room, was a Chinese waitress wearing a long red dress of silk, her black hair curled into a bun. Though only an illusion, the likeness of a real person was impeccable.

Holograms over the years had made such leaps and bounds that most people applauded the technological advancements as modern marvels. And yet, they were a different type of hologram than the old images which were formed by beams of light making 3D images. These holograms were extra lifelike, and may as well not have been called holograms. The very illusions Becca saw before here were produced from the chip in her head, rather than light, causing her brain and her eyes to visualize it all. It’s not to say that the small, compact desktop upon her table didn’t help with producing such images. The chip within Becca’s brain sent a signal to the computer and thus both computer and chip collaborated together to form said illusion.

As things stood, not everyone was pleased with this technology. Some hated it. But though there were a few Platos still in the world who didn’t approve of it, harping on the analogy of the cave with its shadows and illusions, such luddites had always been a rare breed.

“Welcome to Mrs. Yang’s,” the waitress said. The waitress’s voice was produced by a signal from the computer sending a recording into Becca’s chip, enabling her ears to hear it. “A house of the finest Chinese cuisine to satisfy you and your family’s appetites awaits you. Would you like to try our special today?”

“What’s today’s special?” asked Becca.

“Today’s special is twice-cooked pork, fried-cheese wontons, and three egg rolls, plus a drink, all for ten-ninety five.” A perfect 3D image of the food appeared before her.

Tempting price, but Becca didn’t care for twice-cooked pork. “No,” she said.

“Would you like to see our menu?”

“Yes.”

“Let me know when you’re ready to order.”

Illusions of smorgasbords, followed by descriptions of each one of the foods, popped up into her living room in crystal clear precision, as though they could be grabbed. Such realism further satiated her hunger. Becca browsed, not bothering to say another word to the waitress until she ordered. It would be pointless to do so anyway. The waitress was only a recorded person, only able to respond to certain words and phrases. It was a normal tactic done by all restaurant management; video record a person, then program that image and voice into the computer, in which they would respond to applicable questions. There was no use asking how she was doing. She wasn’t fine, sad, angry, or flustered; she just was as is. It would be pointless telling her that her red dress laced with etchings of golden dragons was appreciated. It wouldn’t change a mood that was never there. She was only the shell of the waitress, made visualized flesh by computer and by chip, not the actual person.

After looking over all the appetizers, entrees, dinners, and side dishes, Becca was still confident about her previous decision. “I would like the sweet and sour pork with a side of ham fried rice.”

“Anything to drink?”

“No.”

“Will that be all?”

“Yes.”

“Is this for pickup or delivery?”

“Delivery.”

“Plus driver tax, your total comes to fifteen twenty-five,” said the waitress. “Are you ready for us to scan your chip?”

“Go for it!” Becca assented.

A laser reader came out from her computer, scanning the chip implanted in her brain. “Ms. Rebecca Brown, age thirty-one, of 4213 Willington Dr. Las Angeles, California,” said the waitress. “Is this correct?”

“Yes.”

“Is there anything else?”

“No.”

“Thank you for ordering from Mrs. Yang’s,” the image said with a bow. “Your food will be arriving shortly.”

Becca didn’t immediately return to work, opting instead to sprawl across her couch. She was sure that it was her hunger that was causing her to be short with the customer.

As she waited for her food, she thought of how much of a nuisance it was ordering out. Sure it was convenient, but it came with a price, and that price was more than money. She was certain that she would be dreaming of Mrs. Yang’s off and on, just as she dreamed about some of her other favorite restaurants. It wasn’t uncommon for these companies to hack into the chip when one was asleep to send images into it, causing customers to dream. It was the most effective form of advertising ever.

Originally, there had been laws passed against this, the courts having deemed it as an infringement upon peoples’ privacy, but the ruling didn’t hold up long. Corporations made the argument that they ‘weren’t actually prying into peoples’ thoughts,’ but rather were ‘only broadcasting their products from stores and chains that the consumer had already purchased from.’ While this had still seemed invasive, in the end money and corporate interests won out against the lawmakers and legislatures against it. Bribery was a surefire way to get politicians on the side of the corporations.

In any event, it wasn’t like many people cared about the advertisements in their sleep. Society was bombarded by advertisements on a daily basis. At this very moment, Becca was wearing a t-shirt that screened images of the latest products on it from a very narrow and flexible computerized screen that picked up satellite signals. Even the legging of her pants had a thin vertical screen running down them, with ever-changing words advertising the newest game released or the latest movie out. This had cut down greatly on the price of clothing, making it very inexpensive. Ads on clothing, as well as other advertisements out in the city, were one of the very things that people didn’t need a chip to see. As for the advertisements transferred as dreams into peoples’ sleep, most corporations were smart enough to know not to overdo it. Usually the dreams were subtle, sometimes to the point that people could hardly remember them. Sometimes only the subliminal message remained.

Growing tired of just lounging on her couch, Becca decided to experience a movie. Televisions were a thing of the past, computers having completely taken over, just as they had with everything else. And like almost everything else, the computer program for the movie worked to send a signal to her chip, enabling her to be engulfed in the story.

Cars in a high speed chased rushed past her, the sounds of bullets blazing by while tires burning rubber assaulted her ears. Sometimes she found herself enveloped in a fiery explosion, to see the hero walk out of it towards her, so life-like that she felt she could reach out and touch him. Or she was soaring with a jet above the snowy Swiss Alps, her favorite scene, as it showed a time before those mountains were almost all covered in housing developments.

Everything was so-lifelike while experiencing a movie that one had to be careful so as not to get carried away. Becca remembered back to when she was experiencing one of her favorite films. It was about brave adventurers looking for hidden treasure in an ancient crumbling temple. She had grown so excited during the scenes in which the travelers were jumping from one crumbling platform to another over a chasm that she tried to jump with them, only to break her right leg on her table. Needless to say, she had spent the rest of the day on her couch, as the medical nanobots worked on repairing the bone in her leg. Since then, she learned to sit still during a movie.

‘Your food is here,’ said a pleasant computer automated voice in her ear. Becca ordered the film to shut down, plunging her back into her boring living room.

At her door was a Delivery Bot. The robot was constructed simplistic enough, being built more like a car, and able to hold numerous orders in its interior which was always heated by a heat lamp. Like an average car, it hovered. A large metal neck jutted out from the front, ending in what looked like a pair of oversized binoculars for vision. It held a bag of food out in one metallic hand, while the other hand was a card scanner, greedily outstretched, as hungry for the payment as Becca was for the food. Becca quickly paid it. No chit-chat, no time wasted. Just pay and eat.

As the Delivery Bot flew off, Becca thought back to the history books she read, which told of a time that human delivery had caused too many problems because of irresponsible and their demands for higher wages. Robots were the logical answer to the problem. And not just for restaurants, but for grocery stores too. Robots now delivered everything from fresh eggs, meats, and fish, to cereal and bread, to cleaners and soaps and so forth, meaning one never had to leave their home to go to go the grocery store, either. This was not without its drawbacks, seeing as a huge percentage of the population was now living off meager government assistance, forced to share official living quarters with other families and individuals. The worse off were homeless.

While experiencing her movie, she occasionally spilt food when she was excited by a certain scene. Not a problem. The maid bot, built low to the ground on a pair of wheels, came by and burned, with pinpoint precision, away any food particles off her tile floor.

Finishing her meal, Becca felt like a walk was in order. While it was true that many people chose to stay inside, living in a state of eternal hibernation, she craved the fresh air. She decided that she would end her work day early and let the disgruntled customer wait

Outside she was greeted by houses spread out for miles in all directions, a sea of concrete and plaster. In-between blocks of neighborhoods, one might come across a store or a restaurant. There were, of course, office buildings, but they were more conglomerated downtown and there were only a few of them. Still, though very few people worked white collar jobs anymore, the few office buildings downtown were islands of steel and spires sticking out of the ocean of mediocre homes.

Soaring in the sky above Becca were a couple of cars. Though she had a car, she hated them ever since her husband had died in one. Fairly frequently, the news reported terrible car wrecks. One that stuck out in her memory most vividly was of a drunk driver who, before getting himself drunk, had dismantled the automated flying program. He had plummeted down into the living room of a family, killing the parents and the children. One would have thought that since cars were computer operated that wrecks would have been a tragedy consigned to the annals of history. But this was not the case. Aside from those who loved the thrill of driving their own cars and who would find ways to deactivate the self-driving mechanisms, there were also many cyber-terrorists from other nations who got a sick thrill out of hacking into someone else’s car terminal and rerouting the designated safe route into a building or into a skyway with cars, flying in the opposite direction. It didn’t seem to matter how many security programs were newly put in place, as hackers loved the challenge of finding ways around them. In short, Pandora’s Box had been opened, and not solely by flying cars, but by the advent of putting computers into cars, back in the early 2000s, even before they could fly.

Becca continued on her walk, choosing not to focus on the macabre scenario. It made her think too much of her deceased husband.

Instead she kept her eyes open for interesting people she could possibly meet. But where were they? Come to think of, when had she last seen people out and about? The neighborhood was a silent cemetery. About half the houses were probably deserted, remnants of bygone days when people had spread further to the outskirts of town.

A ro-mower was silently droning as it hovered just barely over the grass, cutting the blades with a spinning laser. A couple blocks further, a louder noise was generated by a swarm of nano-flies cutting the branches off a tree, a pile of sawdust at the base. That was it. Just a couple of robotics out and about. Not a single human.

She was about to give up, but then she saw him.

He was tall and broad shouldered. He wore a polo shirt and a pair of khakis. Upon his shirt an advertisement was ending for a new cereal brand, making way for an ad about the newest in automated indoor sprinkling systems to put out house fires. An ad was running down the video strip on his khakis for the mind-phone update that could be installed in the computer chip. He flashed her a smile that looked as though it could come off the cover of a romance novel.

“Hello there,” said Becca.

“Hello,” he reciprocated. “Where do you come from?”

Becca shrugged. “Just this neighborhood, I’m afraid. Nothing exciting, I know.”

“Nothing exciting? I can hardly believe that, Ms…. Uh, what’s your name?”

“My name is Rebecca Brown,” she said, extending her hand for him to shake. “But just call me Becca.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Becca,” said the man, shaking her hand. “I’m Theodore Green. Kind of a dorky name, I know.”

“Not at all! It sounds strong, masculine.”

“That’s very kind of you. Anyway, you can call me Ted.”

“Okay, Ted,” Becca nodded. “Do you live nearby?”

Ted shook his head. “No. I live on the other end of town. But you know, getting restless and all, I decided I’d take a scenic drive.”

“Scenic!” exclaimed Becca in disbelief. “Why? I didn’t think the neighborhood south of here looked much different than this one. Also, why even take a walk here when you can just take one on your end?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not sure of what you’re getting at,” said Ted.

“Oh, don’t worry about it. It seems kind of weird, but whatever.”

“Say, do you like cars?” he asked, changing the subject.

“Not really. My husband was killed in one.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” said Ted. “Man that sucks! I hope I didn’t dredge up any painful memories.”

“It’s okay. I’d like to take a look at your car anyway,” she lied, two factors prompting it, her feelings of infatuation and it being rude to turn down someone friendly.

Besides, she was lonely, not having gone on a date for quite some time. She needed to get out more, to dance, to feel the embrace of the opposite sex. She had been working far too hard not to indulge in some healthy human interaction. Customers sending angry emails, in which she reciprocated twice as angrily, was not good bonding with her fellow man.

“Right on!” said Ted. “Follow me.” Becca did so, without thinking of the potential consequences of blindly following a stranger. Her parents had warned her, ever since she was a child, of the dangers of just trusting anybody. It was one of the reasons they had enrolled her in virtual classes, so as not to have her deal with bullies and school shootings. In this case, her parents would certainly warn her against following a stranger to his car. And Ted was strange, strange in his mannerisms, and with the way he answered questions.

It only took a minute to come to Ted’s pride and glory, an Orange Bolt 3000. It was sleek and beautiful. Its coloring was that of a sunset, a bright orange slowly fading to a purple with a yellow stripe running across the middle of it. It was modeled after the old convertibles in that it lacked a roof.

“Would you like to hop in for a drive?” Ted wore an expression bespeaking of himself as the perfect gentlemen as the car door automatically opened. “We can go to your place or mine. Maybe we could even get a beer, chill out, watch a movie?”

“Gee, thanks for the invite,” said Becca. “But, I’m not ready for that yet. I mean, let’s get real for a sec. I just met you.”

“I’m sorry, but is there a problem with the car?” asked Ted.

Problem with the car? Becca couldn’t believe her ears. She hadn’t said a thing about the car. Still, he was kind of cute and she was lonely. “How about we meet up some time,” she ventured, not wanting to ruin an opportunity of jumping back into the dating pool.

“That’d be great! What do you like to do?”

“Let’s go to a bar and get plastered,” she said, staring at an advertisement for her favorite beer playing across his shirt. “We could go to a bar and clubbing.”

“Awesome,” said Ted, excitedly. “I’m down for whatever. Maybe I can pick you up in my car.”

“Cool, let’s do it! But I’ll meet you there. I’m not ready to ride with you yet. No offense, but you are a stranger.”

“Can I get your number?”

Becca reluctantly gave it, and in turn he gave her his, the small chip in her head saving it. Now she noticed that the screen on Ted’s polo was primarily showing off different cars. They made a little more chit-chat before Ted drove off.

Overall, Becca had found the conversation to be peculiar, and she was a little annoyed that it often came back to his car. Before leaving he had at least talked about his car for five minutes, boasting about how wonderfully efficient it was. Yet, he was kind enough and she didn’t sense any danger from him.

Becca shrugged. Maybe she didn’t get it, but she didn’t care. She had been trying so hard to forget about her husband that she would take the quirks of a new boyfriend, even if those quirks were talking about cars. Also it’d be a lie to say that she didn’t have her own interests, such as movies and books, which could make her quirky. Who was she to judge someone for loving cars?  She only hoped that if something were to develop between the two of them that she could broaden his horizons.

Becca could have gotten lost in her reverie of finding romance until she remembered that today was the day that she had to visit her deadbeat brother. She didn’t relish this. But she had made a promise to be his wet nurse and she was stuck with her decision. Taking a deep breath, she reminded herself that he lived within walking distance. She could keep the visit brief.

Walking briskly, Becca found herself there in no less than five minutes. A laser came down from the front porch, scanning her chip. Only after it had analyzed all the data did it grant her entrance.

She found her brother sprawled out on the couch, a slug of a man, slowly but steadily drowning under waves of his own fat.

“I don’t suppose you brought me something to eat?” he asked.

How typical! Of course that would be the first question out of his voracious vacuum of a mouth.

“You know, if you hadn’t of lied on the questioner, you probably wouldn’t be immobilized here on your fat ass,” Becca said without worrying the least bit about candor.

“Ah, cut me some slack!” her brother protested. “You know that I tried to sound convincing.”

“Harold,” cried out Becca in exasperation, “you told the computer that you had prior work experience as a manager! How the hell did you think that would go over?”

“I wasn’t thinking” –

“So what else is new?” Becca cut him off. “Harold, even if they didn’t verify through your work history and past employers, the lie detector chip is more than enough to tell them that you are full of shit. A quick scan from a computer monitors your heart rate, your brain waves, just about everything that could give you away. I shouldn’t even be telling you this. You should be smart enough to know this.”

“Well, I’m not, so excuse me!” shouted Harold. “I’ve never been as smart as you. Never as brilliant.”

“Harold. You have genius level abilities in the fields of history and linguistics. You have no right to call yourself stupid. In your case it’s not about brilliance, it’s just about common sense.”

“Yeah, well I guess I lack that.”

Becca was flustered. Why did this have to be so hard? She and Harold had always clashed. This was nothing new. And yet, she couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. Most problems he faced in life he had brought on himself, but society didn’t make it any easier, not with computers and all having taken over the interview process.

It had started out simple enough, with many large companies using computers to do online applications. Now computers were advanced enough to conduct interviews, ascertaining the honesty of the interviewee and assessing his or her skills and weaknesses. In theory it was supposed to be simple, but in reality it made life more difficult. No matter how smart the AI was, no matter what questions the computer could ask, no matter how capable it was of reading heart-rate and brain waves to analyze honesty, there was still room for a great margin of error.

Harold had had the misfortune of being interviewed by a particularly rigid computer program from a prestigious educational firm. He had wanted to be a museum curator, and he had studied hard for many years at an expensive virtual university, paying out huge sums of money and appropriating a large debt in student loans, only to have it capitulate in a small apartment. The thread which had led to his career demise had slowly unwound into a tangled mess after he had graduated. He had made the mistake of taking a year sabbatical before finding a job, in order to help out their sick mother. In retrospect, Harold should have just taken that opportunity to interview for the museum.

But could have he in good conscious?

Their mother had been being treated for cancer for over a year, and she had gradually been growing worse. Nothing the life-like android nurses could do could help her. There had been a couple of flesh and blood doctors there, but they had seldom visited her, except at brief intervals, having so many other things to attend to. Becca had visited her a few times a month when she could manage. If she had of known her mother’s condition was that bad, she would have visited her more. For this Becca still felt heavy guilt. It was Harold who had taken up the mantle of caring for their mother. It was he who had helped her improve for a little while. It didn’t last, but for a short time she was happier.

However, her brother’s sacrifice had come with a price. The computerized interview had asked him if he had been engaged in any education or work in that one year gap. When he had told the computer that he was looking after his mother, the computer had only responded with, ‘I don’t understand. Have you been employed or enrolled in any schooling this past year?’ He should have said no. But he had known that doing so would have brought on the high probability of barring him from future interviews. So, panicking, he had lied, telling the computer that he had spent the last year enrolled as a supervisor for robotic tour guides at historic sites. It didn’t take long for the computer to read his brain waves and his heart-rate, finding that he was lying. Since then, Harold’s reputation had spread through other computer employment systems, effectively lowering his chances fifty-fold of landing a job.

Now, her brother was living off of borrowed funds from their deceased parents and from Becca herself. He could hardly pay the tuition costs back and he barely had a sufficient amount for his own living conditions. It wouldn’t be long until Becca would have to take her brother in to live with her, seeing as the funds within his chip would soon be depleted.

Yes, it was only logical. Becca should have taken her mom in. Then again, why should she have? Why should Harold have even bothered? It wasn’t like Becca’s parents were there for them that much. While they had worked, the robotic butler and maid had watched after her and her brother. And they were cheap robotics at that. They were built to walk on four legs, and looked more like a mechanical set of dogs than they did people. Becca’s parents couldn’t bother to pay for the life-like androids, even though they could have afforded it. The most the robotic nanny and butler did was tell them when to go to bed, help fix them food, and prevent them getting into any danger. In a way, it was her mom’s fault for not being there for them. Why should she have expected any of her kids to be there for them? Becca felt like crap for thinking this. Harold, in many ways, was a better person than her.

“I’m sure something will come up,” Becca lied.

“Yeah, maybe if I can get some pills to take that change the heart rate and the brain-waves to fool the computer,” said Harold.

“Those are illegal!”

“Oh, I’d sell my own mother to afford pills to cheat the system,” he shrugged.

“Not funny,” said Becca. She wanted to slap him for that remark. But she controlled herself by remembering that her brother never had much of a filter to begin with. Besides, despite that utterly tasteless joke over their dead mother, he had still been the one to watch over her, not she, thus getting himself into this predicament. “Harold,” she said in a softer tone, “I know it’s rough right now. But you’re bound to find something.”

“Like what? Who in the hell would have me?”

Becca was at a loss for words. Very few companies would hire him. “What can I do to help make your life easier?” she asked instead.

“Well, you could buy me some of those cream filled cookies. You know the kind I like! I can then happily gorge myself on those. You can also buy me some packs of my favorite beer. I can use those to vomit out my sorrow.”

“Damn it, Harold!” exclaimed Becca. “What good will that do?”

“You’re one to talk, you and your pious, holier-than-thou attitude,” pointed out Harold, shaking a fat fist at her, without even standing up. “You at least have a job. I don’t have jack-shit! How dare you have the nerve lecturing me about how morally wrong slowly killing myself is! Well, society is slowly killing me a little bit each and every day. If I’m to die, at least let it be from drinking myself to death, or a heart attack brought on by a sugar rush.”

Becca blushed. He was right. She had no right to condemn him.

“I’m sorry, Harold,” she whispered. “I’ll see what I can do.”

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The Open Window short story: rough draft

 

 

 

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The Shipwreck on the Northern Sea by Ivan Alvazovsky

 

In the midst of the ocean, far away from the continent of any kingdom, there was a very small island of black rocks and on this island was an equally black tower. But inside the tower, living on the very top floor, was the most beautiful maiden, a princess, that mankind could hope to see. Her hair was amber gold, her skin white like marble with a dash of rose-red on her cheeks, and her eyes green like the grass emerging in the spring after a long winter. Her hands were dainty, her feet delicate, and her body petite. But her real beauty didn’t come from the shell that her soul occupied. Rather her beauty was her soul.

Yet many of the suitors failed to see Princess Celeste’s inner beauty. They were too enamored by her physical features. However, there had been one man who had seen past her outer beauty and into the heart that beat within her. This man hadn’t been one of the nobility, but a lowly farmer who had dared to talk with the princess when she had escaped the confines of the castle to stroll out in the countryside in disguise. He had been charming, witty, and eager to hear what Celeste had to say, treating her like an average person.

For his kindness towards her, he would pay with his life.

Celeste’s father had sent the royal guards out to find her. When they saw her mingling with a common farmer they bound him in chains, despite the Princess’s pleading for his life. Reasoning with her father had not worked. The King had the farmer whipped and then beheaded. In anguish and fury, Celeste had told him that because of his cruelty she’d never marry a suitor that he picked for her. Enraged, the king ordered her to be locked away in a tower far out in the ocean, months away from land, until she changed her mind.

Because of this edict, Celeste was confined in this tower, unable to leave it. The sturdy door at the bottom had to be always sealed shut because of the force of the waves that crashed against it, eager to pull a young maiden into their waters and claim her as their own. It was just as well. There was nothing down there except jagged rocks and slimy moss that clung to the lower stones of the tower.  Celeste’s father, out of his supposed love and mercy for her, had decorated her tower chamber with all the trinkets, tapestries, and books from her castle quarters back home. There had been no way for him to move furniture in. The waves were too fierce. But there was furniture, a chest of drawers, a mirror, a table, a few chairs, a rug, and a bed that had been put in the tower years ago. Yet, a prison was a prison, no matter how much like home it was made to feel.

Sometimes Celeste would stare out the window, smelling the sea breeze, a perfume of salty tears, as she looked out into the dark blue hills that were always rolling and crashing over one another. Sometimes this helped, others time it did not. More than once, she considered tossing herself out of the window to land on the rocks below, offering herself as a sacrifice to the fish of the sea. It was her books that preserved her fragile mind. In those slender pages were numerous worlds full of adventure.

Every year her father sent a ship full of sailors, guardsmen, and servants out to the tower to see if she had changed her mind. Celeste’s answer was always the same. She’d rather die alone than succumb to a tyrant’s wishes. “Are you not running low on food and water?” the men would ask. But she would tell him that she would survive. And she had. She had managed to knit herself a net from one of her old dresses, and from the lower windows she would cast it into the sea and haul up fish. She collected rainwater from a bucket she had dangling from a peg hanging out her window. For fruit and vegetables she had smuggled out some berry seeds and roots in a chest of soil that she had been allowed to take with her (her father had thought she was taking some extra clothes). From her bedroom window, she would push the end of a desk out through the window with the plants on top so they could get sunlight.

Still, it was lonely. She had lived in the tower for the last five years. Her misfortunes aside, Celeste felt greater sorrow for the young farmer who had loved her for her. She had often dreamed about him in her sleep, as though they were on some wild adventure from one of her novels. He hadn’t deserved to die. These thoughts were her unpleasant company, day in and day out.

It was the fifth year that her life would change.

It was a day of heavy rain and harsh winds. Celeste was forced to move her potted plants and her pale inside lest they were blown away. Tall waves were slamming up against the tower, working hard to break through the doors. But they held strong. The wind roared like a dragon in flight.

To keep her mind off the storm, Celeste was knitting. She was just finishing up knitting the last thread of wool on a headscarf when a flash of light shot through her window. Initially she thought it was lightening. But it was a wounded bird, an arrow piercing its left side just above the leg, and it had landed on the table. A pool of blood formed under it, dripping in small droplets that ran off the table’s edges. The poor wounded creature moved Celeste’s heart to compassion as she rushed over to the bird.

Cradling the bird in her arms, she was amazed to see that he wasn’t like any other bird she had seen before. It wasn’t a pelican or a stork. He almost looked like a heron. It had a sharp beak and a long neck like one. Its body shape was similar to. However, its body glistened like refined silver. Its talons and beak were like gold. A tuft of furry feathers were like blue diamonds, and its eyes coruscated like green emeralds. The tail feathers were what truly caught her attention. They were as transparent as a wisp in the night. The bird croaked pitifully.

“Be of good comfort,” Celeste soothed the bird. “All will be made right. Now please be still.”

Gritting her teeth, she braced herself to pull the arrow out. The bird squawked as she yanked it free. Her hands moved fast as she wrapped the scarf she had knitted into a bandage for the bird. Her act of kindness had stained her favorite blue dress in dark blood. This hurt her a little because the dress was a gift that her mother had given her before she had passed away. Celeste’s mother had always loved her, unlike her father. Wearing the dress helped Celeste remember her. Nonetheless, a dress could be replaced. A life could not.

Celeste laid the poor bird in a basket with a bundle of clothes. She placed it in a corner of the room, far from the storm, and laid a bowl of water by it. She didn’t know what else she could do for it except to speak soothingly to it, which she did. Celeste’s speaking eventually turned into song. Her song was a clear, spring day, bright sunlight, keeping the roaring and howling of the storm at bay. When she was done singing and night was approaching, she slipped into her gown and made her way to her bed. Pulling the covers over her, she thought she could hear a voice. It was faint. It was “thank you.” Chalking it up to her exhaustion, she thought no more of it and fell asleep.

As the weeks passed, Celeste gave the bird food and water. Each week, the bird looked a bit healthier. Sometimes she would even read to the bird. Though it was only an animal she was tending to, the princess felt like her life had purpose again. Gradually, the bird began to walk. It came to a point that, though still wounded, the bird would follow Celeste around the chamber, and sometimes even down to the kitchen where she would cook a meal.

The emotions that coursed through the princess’s heart were twofold. On one hand her soul was enlivened to see the bird growing well. It was more than the tending of an animal. It was a friendship. They ate together, cuddling up in the blanket together when it was cold, and when she talked to her winged companion she felt like it could understand her; if not her words, the language of her heart and soul. When Celeste was happy, the bird looked happy, when despondent, the bird appeared despondent. It was as if some string had connected the two of them together. And yet gloom hung over her to know that when the fowl was well, she would be alone. That string would break when the bird flew away into the horizon, away from her life.

How Celeste wished she could fly away, especially at this time of year. As the years passed, she had grown accustomed to the change in seasons and what they brought. Without even a calendar to remind her, she knew that in another week her father’s servants and guardsmen would be returning on their ship to inquire her as to whether she would be a dutiful daughter and accept her father’s arranged marriage for her. Every year she told them no, and every year they told her that she’d die here if she didn’t bend to the king’s will. Celeste looked over the bird she had formed a friendship with. That was a free bird, whereas she was a bird trapped in a fancy cage.

When the time was nigh and the night was at its darkest, Celeste lay awake, sobbing on the large cushions of the bed. In another day her father’s ship would be here and she wouldn’t be able to board it. The darkness was heavy, and again thoughts whispered sweet lies, like poison, that it was better that she toss herself out from the tower than live another day in misery as she slowly awaited for death to come naturally.

It was when the shadows were at their deepest, in which she couldn’t hope to resurface from this sea of sorrow, that she heard a gentle voice. “Celeste, mourn not.”

She looked up from the pillows to see the bird, and he was glowing. His silver body and golden beaks and legs shone in the dark, as did the tuft of blue hair on his head. His emerald eyes sparkled like stars. And his tail feather! Feathers, spread out like a fan, which were once transparent were now a translucent cornucopia of shifting colors.

“Why do you cry?” he asked her.

“Do you not know?” she sniffed while wiping the tears from her eyes. “Have I not told you that the time draws near for my father to torment me again by reaching out a hand that I can never take?

“And why can you never take his hand, child?”

“For what he did. A farmer, just barely a young man, deigned to speak with me and to treat me as though I were decent human being and not a prize to be won. I was so infatuated with him, in spite of his rough hands and crude appearance, that I felt a sense of joy. We laughed together, talked together, sang in unison. Then my father cut the cord of his life.”

The bird flapped his wings and landed on the bedside by Celeste. “And you stay away from your father because you don’t want to associate with him?”

“Of course! I won’t give in and marry a suitor to appease him, not after what he did. His heinous sin is unforgivable.”

The bird latched his green eyes onto hers. “Are you sure that he’s the only one you won’t forgive?”

“Whatever do you mean? What sort of riddles do you speak, bird?”

“I speak not in riddles, but plainly so that the mind can comprehend. Do you not forgive yourself? For I see it clearly, the burden that you carry on your back. You blame yourself as much as you blame your father for the young man’s death.”

The truth that the bird proclaimed was an arrow, piercing her heart. It hurt. Celeste had tried to deny that she was punishing herself for so long. “What must I do?” she asked, her voice weak.

“You want to cut associations with your father, do you not?”

“I do,” Celeste said with great conviction.

“Then cast off your burdens. That way your frame will be light and you can fly away with me.”

“How do I cast off” –

“It’s simple,” the bird interjected. “You forgive yourself. However, once you do, there is no looking back. You will cease to be a princess. Does that suite you?”

“Yes,” Celeste’s voice quivered with a hint of sadness. “Yes, it suits me fine.”

“Do you forgive yourself?”

Celeste had to examine herself. Why, oh why, did she ever have to associate with a mere farmhand? If it hadn’t been for her, that poor man would have still been alive. It wasn’t her fault. She herself telling herself again and again. The sin was her father’s and her father’s alone. After some deep introspection, she forgave herself.

“I’m ready,” she told the bird.

“Not yet,” he said to her gently. “You must now forgive your father, just as I forgave some sailors who shot an infernal arrow in me. Until then, you are chained here.”

“Forgive!” fumed Celeste. “He is unforgivable. I shall never crawl back to him.”

“I never asked you to crawl back to him,” the bird corrected her. “I asked you to soar high above him, to reach the heavens that he cannot reach. Do so and you’ll have a freedom that he refuses.” For a moment there was silence. “Unless you’d like to stay trapped in this tower.”

Celeste certainly did not want to live out the rest of her life entrapped in a tower. But could she forgive the man who had harmed her and harmed many others? Why couldn’t he have been the one death had claimed as a prize instead of her fair mother? As she pondered this, not so much with her mind, but through the very depths of her soul, she came to the realization that she could forgive him. He had done so much to hurt himself. Through his cruel actions, he had lost the trust and confidence of many of the lords and ladies. He had made more enemies, instead of allies, that constantly waged war against his kingdom. He had lost her, his daughter and a blood heir to the throne. He had the scorn of the world. He didn’t need hers.

“I forgive him,” said Celeste.

The bird landed on the windowsill, his many colors forming a rainbow against the night sky. “Then fly with me.”

“It’s madness. I’ll hit the rocks below and perish.”

“You shall not. I promise you.” The bird flew out, leaving a trail of silver, gold, emerald, crimson-purple, light blue, bright red, and vibrant yellow.

Celeste did her best to calm the machinations of her mind that warned her against such foolishness, choosing instead to rely on her heart. She leapt out the window, stretched out her arms and took flight. For a few seconds she screamed, certain that the earth was going to pull her down. Instead she was soaring in the night, the waves of the ocean crashing below her and the stars in the sky acting as a map, a compass, above her, pointing her in the direction she should go.

The king’s ship manned by sailors, servants, and guardsmen were being rocked back and forth on the ocean that night, five hours away from the tower. But they wouldn’t see the princess when they arrived. What they did see were two birds in flight, glowing in a myriad of different colors that cut through the darkest of nights.

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Bound in the Earth: rough draft

 

 

Eastern-desert-mountain-range-Qena

Image from Wikimedia Commons by Edal Anton Lefterov.

Whew! Here you go. I finally finished the rough draft of Bound in the Earth. Yes, it’s choppy. Yes, it’s imperfect. But I hope you find it as intriguing of a story as this rough desert the character inhabits.

Suggested for ages 13 and up for some suggestive themes.

I was an abandoned child, no more than five years old, when the priests of Kartoc found me alone in the desert, my tribe having abandoned me. From there, I was taken to their temple built in the stone cliffs of Gigamunt. Don’t ask me why my tribe abandoned me. I’m not sure of what offense as a five year old boy I could have committed. I don’t even remember my original name. The priests gave me a new one. Erug is my name today. And I spent most of my life cleaning the stone floors of the temple, and helping the head priests sacrifice fowl and cattle to the deity of Kartoc. The priests were kind to me, making sure that I was properly clothed and fed. I would even go so far as to say that many of them became like fathers, brothers, and uncles to me.

But Kartoc, I could never see him as a heavenly father. His stone statue stood twelve feet high. From head to toe, he was carved to look like he was wearing heavy plate armor, with the symbol of a roaring lion on his breastplate. His head was bereft of a helmet, carved instead to have a head of flowing locks down to his shoulders and a beard that reached above his breastplate. His legs were bare a little above the knees, chiseled out into muscles and sinews, ending in strong feet shod in sandals. One hand was wrapped over his stomach, fists clenched around a sword, while the right arm was raised high, holding a sickle, a symbol of reaping the souls of the dead and of conquering the false gods from long ago. Being abandoned by my tribe and my parents was hard enough for me, but to be brought to a temple in which one sees the image of Kartoc, armed with blades and looking down with eyes that reflect anger, permeated my small, fragile body.

Nonetheless, the food was good and my quarters were comfortable. I was away from the scorching heat of the desert sun and the chill of the desert night. The temple itself was a wonderland of twisting corridors and secret passages to explore. What more could a child ask for?

I joyfully spent my childhood probing the deepest secrets of the temple, discovering corridors that wound in all directions, hallways and chambers that told stories of those who built the place. I was never in the dark. The stone walls of the temple had some sort of crystals in them that always gave off a soft orange glow like a cold fire. Being that young, I thought that the crystals glowed for me, like they were a light telling me that all would be okay in this dark world, even though I had been forsaken. A silly thought, I know, but when one is a child it’s often the silly thoughts that are the most logical, keeping us sane. I appreciated those lights, especially when I got lost in the halls and narrow passageways. And for the first couple of weeks I did get lost. And not just in the secret passages and corridors, but in my very mind, I might add as I got lost in my own thoughts, a thick fog of the worst things that could happen to me. Yet the priests were always able to find me. I am thankful that they never chastised me, but told me that they would always search me out when lost. The comforting words of the priest’s aside, my initial fears couldn’t dampen the flame of my curiosity that burned brighter by each passing day. When I wasn’t cleaning, I explored as much of the temple as I could. I found narrow passages plastered in murals of great battles, in which Kartoc lead his valiant army to battle against the forces of evil.

The first chamber I found myself in was a wide and spacious one, where pillars towered above me, with life-size lions, tigers, and jackals carved onto pedestals jutting out the pillars halfway up and further on top, each of these stone animals eying me like I was prey. I needn’t elaborate the initial fear I felt. I was certain that those stone animals were alive and that they would eat me. There was an old altar in the middle of this room, used for old animal sacrifices. I always thought that it looked like it would make a good table for me to be there dinner. Memories blur over time and I can’t remember if it took me weeks, months, a year, or even just a couple of days, to summon the courage to go back into that chamber. In a way, that chamber was my rite of passage, an early initiation into the vaster hallways of my life where tough decisions would have to be made. But for now, I was a happy child.

For my first couple of years in the temple, the chamber and the adjoining passages were my territory and I didn’t go much further. But when I was eight I started to explore a bit more. I found other chambers, some empty, and others full of old antiques whispering of a time long gone. Some were full of stacked old vases sprinkled with the dust of ages, their paint chipping away. One room was a long chamber leading up to a throne of tarnished silver, its edges inlaid with dull jewels. Excited, I told the priests about it. They told me that there were many treasures in this old temple, but that the greatest treasure was Kartoc, and he alone deserved our worship. Speaking of which, in one chamber I found a dead language chiseled on the walls. When I inquired of the priests, none knew what it read, except that it was a dead language it was in praise to the righteous indignation of Kartoc and the love he had for his children.

“Why is the temple so big?” I asked Dyorn, one of the older priests. He was one of my primary caretakers, teaching me how to properly pay observances to Kartoc and how to clean the temple.

“Because the ancients needed it to be so, Erug.”

“But why?”

“You ask a lot of questions for an eight year old.” My fears that he was growing impatient with me were alleviated as a wry smile crossed his face. “No harm in that. An inquisitive mind brings one to the truth. First off, you should know that the ancients are our ancestors, Erug. And you as a priest in training have been adopted into the family, so, they are your ancestors, too. Also there were more servants to Kartoc back then, an army of them. We are the descendants of that army. The numbers of Kartoc’s army died down greatly, hence we don’t need to use the whole temple. But those ancestors waged a huge spiritual battle, lead by Kartoc himself, against the forces of darkness and their leader the evil one.”

“Is what you’re talking about from the old mural I saw in one of the passageways?”

“Yes,” nodded Dyorn, well pleased. “I am happy to see that you able to make the connections.”

“And the throne room I found?”

“For the king of the priests.”

“What about that big chamber where I saw an old altar with animals on pillars peering down?” I felt goosebumps just asking about it.

“That is where the king of the priests officiated the animal sacrifices to Kartoc, the three animals are his guardians.”

“And who was the king?”

The king was Gecata the Great. He was the first member of our order, pledging his allegiance to Kartoc to banish the evil one. Gecata was a humble farm boy who lived in a kingdom overruled by the evil one. The evil one reigned supreme, having his followers subjugate the people. The nobles were under the influence of the evil one, but worse was the king. The king engaged in all sorts of debauchery, and the nobles followed his lead. Their most heinous of sins was sacrificing a citizen to the evil one, once a month. But Gecata had a dream one night after his brother was taken to be sacrificed the next day. A heavenly being appeared before him, sword raised. He told the boy to rally the people to overthrow the evil king and his monarchy, and that if Gecata did so, he, Kartoc, would be by his side as they took the fight to the thresholds of the evil one himself. Though the young farm boy assured the populace that Kartoc would guide them, many didn’t believe him. Out of the thousands of people, only ten joined his side. The rest mocked him. No matter. Those who mocked were humbled when Gecata and his ten followers stormed the castle and put the king and his followers to the sword. After the battle, Gecata was crowned the new king. But he was more than a king. He was a priest, presenting Kartoc’s laws to the people and officiating in the sacrifices.

“Still there those who still followed the evil one, amassing into large armies. So Gecata’s successors had a vision to build this temple. They hid the evil one’s remains in the darkest bowels, where no one could find it. Why do we have twisting corridors that one can easily get lost in? So if enemies tried to invade, they would get lost and the priests could waylay them. And they did. These were warrior priests, and they knew every tunnel and secret passageway.”

“Why didn’t the enemy armies blow up the temple by launching huge boulders or with magic?” I was by now enthralled in what I was hearing.

“You ask so many questions, and it’s getting late,” laughed Dyorn. “At this rate, you are going to have me up all night. No matter. I forgot to mention that after Gecata and his ten followers put the king and the nobles to death, more people amassed under his banner, and they marched out to the fields to engage in open combat with the evil one. The evil one had called his followers from all the corners of the earth, and his figure was looming like a dark shadow. But Kartoc’s figure was also towering high, like a mountain, and with sword outstretched he lead Gecata and his army to conquer. That they did, and the evil one’s spirit was sealed in a jar and buried deep in the temple.

“So, what would it avail them to bombard the temple? They would have to remove huge slabs of stone and all the rest of the debris to find the jar that seals the evil god’s spirit. They couldn’t risk bombarding the temple. And with that inconvience, the evil one’s followers slowly died and the attacks became less frequent as the years passed by.”

“The evil god is sealed in this temple?” I couldn’t believe that this place where I felt a sense of peace – not including Kartoc’s intimidating statue – had something evil lurking beneath it. Imagine the terror a child feels when he thinks that there is a monster under the bed. This was similar to that feeling, but magnified.

Dyorn saw my concern and tried to comfort me. “By all means, keep up with your exploring of the temple. You are not going to find that jar. The warrior-priests of old made sure of that. You are in the safest place on earth.”

Words of comfort can pacify a child, but in this case it did little to soothe me to sleep. Neither were the glowing crystals that were in the rest of the temple in my quarters. So I had to sleep in the darkness, my thoughts my only company. I need not describe in too much detail how I felt. Suffice to say, it’s that gloom that lays heavily on the chest, the weight of life and all its uncertainties crushing the spirit that I had to face nightly.

There was a year in which I chose not to explore the temple. The stature of Kartoc, initially frightening to me, now took on the role of father figure protecting me from the evil. Familiarity breeds contentment. But, that contentment didn’t last. For contentment often comes about with the familiar, and thus, ironically enough, contentment breeds boredom. Children are natural adventurers, and it wasn’t long before I decided to start exploring the temple again, eager to see what new discoveries I could make.

It was when I was an older child and my body had a little more strength to it that I found that by pulling on a statue the arm would sometimes twist, causing the statue to move and reveal another passage. The first passage I discovered doing this was dark, and it made me think that some monster was lurking down there, or the evil spirit of the banished god. A part of me was frightened, but the adventurous side of me conquered my fear, and I ran back to my quarters to grab a torch, wrapped in a rag torn from one of my old robes, and to retrieve a match.

Torch lit and at the entrance, I stared at the stairway leading down. I should have thought of the ramifications if my torch ran out of oil. But I was too lost in the corridors of my own mind of what I might discover that I didn’t stop to think of the dangers of being lost in the corridors of a new passageway. Only now do I look back and realize that a young boy had no business in traversing into unknown territory. I count myself lucky that I survived the ordeal, for I got lost in those dark passages. By the time I found my way out, my torch was almost burned out. But at the time I felt it had been worth it. Though most of what I had discovered were empty chambers and long hallways that lead to dead ends or which led back into each other. I did find one room full of old bones. Cracked skulls, swords jammed into rib cages, and disembodied bones lay across the floor. I wondered if this had been a battle between the old warrior priests against invaders who had tried to storm the temple. Some of these passage ways lead to crypts with intricately carved coffins, each one illustrating a different scene of the person’s life.

There is not much more to say on the matter. The years passed. I attended my priest in training duties. I formed solid familial bonds with the other priests, and on my spare time I continued to discover new secret passage ways. I had learned from my past mistakes, taking polished stones and leaving them along the corridors so I would know how to get out. If I hadn’t, I don’t doubt that I might not likely be here telling this story. For I don’t even think the priests could have found me in all that darkness.

It was when I was nine years old that the seeds of a violent upheaval would be laid for me to take root later on in my life. It happened late at night when my room was in complete darkness, that perfect time for the world to fall apart around you.

Erug, the voice said softly. It was like a fresh breath that I had been shut away from for years. There was something familiar about it, like when someone finds an oasis in the desert to quench their thirst. Rejuvenating, nourishing. Then it dawned on me. It was feminine. Something I had grown unaccustomed to.

I sat up straight in my bed. “Who’s there?” I asked.

You can find me under the altar.

“How do I open it?”

From the blood of a dove.

And that was all she said.

I sat awake in my bed, perplexed and then terrified. Who had just spoken to me, asking for blood? I told the priests what I had heard. But they seemed more annoyed that I woke them up. They tried to convince me that it was just a bad dream that felt real. I find it funny that they had taught me the importance of heeding omens and divine manifestations, the belief in voices from the spirit realm being the core of our doctrine, only for them to tell me that what I had heard was of no consequence. It’s been my observation that adults don’t seem to take children or youth seriously. But in all honesty, it’s the young who are the most receptive to the voices of the spirit realm, seeing as they are without guile or influence from the vain philosophies of adults.

Still, I had hopes that the priests were right about it only being a bad dream. Often when we pine for the end of unpleasant situations, we are disappointed to find that it’s only the beginning of our sorrows. But by the end of the week, I heard that voice, smooth and calm, yet laced with a dangerous edge to cut, again in the darkness. It was a voice that was like the eerie calm of the desert before the raging sand and thunderstorms.

Erug, what are you doing? Have you forgotten?

“I thought you were a dream.”

Is that how you truly felt? she asked softly, though I knew the question was more rhetorical.

“No. I knew that you were real,” I confessed.

               Then you know that you must help me.

“I don’t even know who you are,” I said. “And I don’t want to know.” And I didn’t. Not yet, not at that time. I didn’t need anything to come and cause a disruption to the peaceful life that I was living.

For a moment I felt a chill. I shuddered, wondering if I had angered whoever this being was… whoever…. “The evil one!” I blurted it out suddenly.

A giggle pierced the darkness, one child-like with a hint of mischief. Is that what they are calling me? Of course, the big guy would discard me like that, wouldn’t he!

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you are supposed to be sealed somewhere in the temple.”

And I am. But it’s my thoughts that roam free. They do get so board hidden within the bowels of this prison. That is why I’m wondering if you won’t come down and visit me. I get so lonely. Come down and I can explain everything to you. Maybe we can even play a game. All you have to do is sacrifice a dove to me.

“I’m not killing an innocent dove,” I protested. “Leave me alone,” I shouted.

No need to shout, Erug. The priests can’t hear you. They are entrapped in the sleep of happy dreams.

“And what are happy dreams?”

That same giggle. When you’re older and still celibate, you’ll then know. Then there was a deep sigh. I grow tired. You’re just no fun. I’m going to be blunt. I know that you are too inquisitive to never seek me out. You always have been. Curiosity will keep sucking at your brain, like a mosquito sucking blood, urging you to scratch that itch, and when you do your life will never be the same again.

And she was right. As time went on I did grow more curious. But I can hold my head high knowing that I held my ground, that is until she gave me the final ultimatum.

Another night came as usual, but the next day the priests just didn’t wake up. Then the day after that priests still didn’t wake up. I tried waking up Dyorn, but aside from a faint breath and a smile on his face, it was as if he were dead. Frantically, I tried to wake him up. When he didn’t wake up, I tried waking the others up. But all were in this happy dream-like trance, unable to wake up. I felt powerless.

You should have listened to me, she said to me after a week had passed. Right now I am being gentle to you by giving them nice, pleasant dreams about that which is forbidden them. But if you keep this up, I shall take away their manhood, making these bulls into steers. Don’t cross me, young one.

So, there I was. Trapped. Still, I hated the idea of killing a dove to find her. I knew where the sacrificial doves to Kartoc were kept. Maybe I could find a sickly one. Thank goodness, there was one that looked like it was on death’s door. I took that bird from out of the perch, not bothering to hid it under my robe since there were no priests to stop me.

I slit the dove’s throat, with a crude makeshift shiv, over the altar. The blood spilled on the stone slab. What to do? How would I clean the blood out that was already staining the rough surface? Where would I put the dove?

Throw it on the altar, came the feminine voice.

Shaking, I dropped the dove on the altar where it burned without use of kindling. Even the blood evaporated, transforming into a red misty smoke. I then heard the grating of stone as the altar opened before me, revealing a set of stairs going downward.

Come not unto me unprepared! her voice echoed in my mind.

I found myself at the crossroads of indecision. One part of me was terrified of what would happen to me if I went down there. Another part of me was fearful for Dyorn and the other priests if I didn’t. What was I to do? I figured that since she warned me not to come to her unprepared, I had time to think it over. Surely she wouldn’t harm the priests in such a short time frame. Hopefully.

That night I had a dream. I was taken down the steps to where there were three riddles. The first riddle was short but succinct. Can water quench my burning thirst? The second riddle followed thus: And ache that needs to be relieved. The final riddle was a bit more complex. The portion of the size matters not. No matter how much I eat, I am always hungry, never full. In eternal darkness I dwell.

My mind made up, the next day I took a torch, a shoulder sack of rags drenched in alcohol, and went down those stairs underneath the altar. It smelled old and suffocating down there. I held my torch out to burn the shadows around me away. The stairway down was long, and I often second guessed my decision. I went down so many stairs that my feet grew sore and I lost all track of time. Did time even exist down there? If memory serves me right, it felt as though time stopped in that limbo. Either way, it felt like I walked down those steps for hours. Too stubborn to turn back.

Eventually, I came upon a hallway. It stretched far. Numerous times I had to stop and replenish my torch with a new rag. If it went out on me, I knew I’d go mad in that darkness. As it was, I wondered where the voice of that womanly spirit had gone off to. I began to ask questions as to whether or not she had tricked me into coming down here, to toy with me like a spider does a fly, or a cat torments a mouse. Brief shock that I can’t possibly put into adequate words overwhelmed me. She could have very easily closed the altar on me, forever trapping my remains in that forsaken place. I felt helpless in the earth above and around me, but worse I felt encaged by the fears of my mind. I couldn’t scream. Even if the priests were awake my scream would be a silent one, swallowed by this stone tomb.

But then I saw something. It was a faint blue glow in the distance. It looked ghostly. My first impression was that it was the spirit mocking me. But when I got closer I found that it was a large blue fire. It burned hot, and I knew that that this was my first riddle. Can water quench my burning thirst? I could tell that the path way widened into a huge room, with the fire engulfing all of it. Of course water couldn’t quench a thirst such as this. I would have had to have brought down thousands of buckets worth, a monumental task that I could never be up to.

Then, over the crackling of the fire, my ears picked up a steady and gentle sound. Water! I looked up see another light shining down. It was a dim sky-blue light, outlining what looked like some sort of walkway held up by pillars. My eyes followed the walkway, ending in, to my delight, a waterfall. It was an aqueduct. But how was I to get water from it? Then, my eyes saw a ladder in the right hand corner of the fiery room. Only one problem. There was only a sliver of a space to tread, a slit of safe ground between the wall and the fire. I had no choice. I would have to walk near the fire and hope I wouldn’t get burned. Back pressed into the wall, somehow or other I did it, and I didn’t even singe a hair.

The ladder was far enough in the corner that it was warm, but not burning hot. Fortunately it was also made of stone, not metal. I climbed up it onto a catwalk running by the suspended irrigation duct. I dunked my hands in the water. My, that water was cold! Ice cold! It felt good after the heat of the fire. And as luck would have it, I saw a lever in the wall at the far end in front of me with a carving showing the aqueduct opening to release water on the fire. I was about to pull the lever, but I hesitated. This answer was too simple. It looked like enough water was running through to put out the fire, but my intuition warned me against it, and I the riddle came returned with full force back into my mind. Can water quench my burning thirst? No. Water couldn’t quench that thirst. There had to be something else. Something not so obvious.

Eureka! Another glance showed a rope hanging down on the opposite end of the catwalk. Above it were saw some large bags, tons of them. None were directly above my head that I could see. Still, it was terrifying to pull that rope. I had no idea what would happen. Yet my intuition warned me about pulling the lever to release the water. So I pulled the rope. The bags came crashing through the walkway I wasn’t standing on. A huge cloud of dust rose up. When the dust cleared I noticed that the fire wasn’t burning anymore. There was only a pile of sand and the water running through it and into a drain.

I was able to jump softly onto the tall pile of sand. I made my way to the door that had previously been blocked and into the next chamber.

Inside were statues of all sorts of bizarre creatures crowding the room. Though I had plenty of torches, there were other torches burning faintly on the walls, allowing me to save the ones I already had in case I needed them. What sort of magic was this that allowed fire to continually burn? I had a feeling that the fires were as old as the chambers themselves. The illuminations didn’t do anything to alleviate my fears. Shadows melded into the black statues, making it hard to decipher what was stone and what was silhouette. Jagged teeth lining long snouts and sharp claws at the ends of outstretched arms seemed to grasp at me, even though I knew that was impossible. I almost fell on my face when I tripped over a winding stone tail, and I slightly cut my leg, below my shin, open on one of the spikes. It could have been a lot worse. My thick trousers protected me, though they were ruined in the process. The mental anguish bothered me more than the physical, anyway. The creatures who looked like wolves, dragons, serpents, and ogres ate at my mind, causing my heart to falter.

What did this have to do with the second riddle? An ache that needs to be relieved. Did it refer to my leg? Because my leg was certainly aching after that fall. Maybe that vision had been an omen and I had to heal my leg. But again I didn’t think it could be that obvious. The riddle pertained to the statues that much I was sure of. I tried to swallow my fears and look for clues. But I could find nothing distinguishing about the statues, not initially anyway. I must have spent who knows how many hours examining every one of them; their lifeless stone eyes always watching me.

It was when I was about ready to give up that I found I had missed a small detail on one of the statues I looked at earlier. It was a statue of some hybrid, a long serpent body with smooth scales, coiled near the back. Half way up the serpentine body, an arm protruded out, ending in three sharp claws.  The upper part of the statue forming the neck, if it could be called that, bent in an arch, head at the end looking straight at me. It had the face of a lion, barring his teeth. All this I had noticed before, except for one of the teeth looking out of place. It bent ever so slightly out of the mouth, hardly noticeable unless one looked closely. It made me think of a toothache.

That was it!

I tried pulling the tooth out with my fingers. It moved and jiggled a bit, but I couldn’t quite yank it out. There had to be something I could use for some sort of leverage. I then looked at my ripped trousers. A thread, the length of my arm, was hanging off because of the tear from the spikes. If I could only manage to… And I got it, carefully used the torch to burn off the piece. Thank goodness I didn’t catch myself on fire in the process. With my string in hand, I tied it in a noose and slipped it between the crevices of the bad tooth. I prayed that the threads of my trousers would be strong enough to yank a tooth out. Without further thought, I yanked. To my surprise the string held and the tooth came flying out.

Stone grated on stone while the statues turned around to face forward. A wall moved from its place, revealing another set of stairs.

This was it. The final test.

At the bottom of the stairs was an ancient library, full of rolls of scrolls stuffed away into old wooden shelves and stacks of musty tomes. In the wall in front of me was the statue of a fierce bird of prey, though I know not what kind. Its beak looked like it could tear into flesh, and for a moment I feared that it would eat my bones. Light, a dim blue, was provided by a huge diamond in the wall.        When I was standing right in front of it, the neck craned down slightly, allowing the bird’s eyes to stare right into mine. “Answer the riddle correctly and pass on through. Incorrectly, and your life is mine.”

“Do I have time to think the riddle over?” I asked, flustered.

“Take as much time as you need,” said the fierce bird. “I have all the time in the world. Now, your riddle. The portion of the size matters not. No matter how much I eat, I am always hungry, never full. In eternal darkness I dwell.”

“How am I supposed to know the answer to that?” My prior confidence of being able to solve the riddle was, suffice to say, waning. Death, or the possibility of such, is truly a great humbler.

“Are you blind, boy! Look around you! You’re in a library. Search for the answer, if you must.”

I tried to keep calm, reminding myself that I could think rationally. Obviously the answer was in one of these books or scrolls. But which one? There were too many of them. Think, think, think! I had to think! Start from a portion of the riddle. In eternal darkness I dwell. Okay, something that dwelled in darkness, and eternal at that. A bat perhaps? Another part of the riddle was no matter how much I eat, I am always hungry, never full. With no time to lose, I started reading through the scrolls and books, starting with writings about animals. But none of the animals seemed to fit the answer to the riddle.  Bats could eat a lot of bugs. But bats could still get full. The only part of the riddle that worked in their favor was that they, unless sick, they dwelled in eternal darkness. Like the water above the fire for the first riddle, it was too obvious. I then had the wild idea that maybe it wasn’t something of this earth. Maybe not even alive.

It took a while to wade through the clutter of scrolls and books, but I eventually found the section dealing with astronomy. The ancients had written copiously about the heavens, with its stars, nebulas, planets, and comets. But I found nothing about life anywhere else in the universe. If Kartoc had created other planets, inhabited by other people, then the teachings were silent over it. Then I found the answer. A scholar who had written about black holes. They sucked away everything from stars to planets, in a sense they were devouring them. Such a thing could never be full or hungry, not being alive, and it dwelled in the darkness of space.

Bravely, I took the scroll and approached the bird guardian, not sure if my answer was correct, but knowing that I had no other choice if I wanted to save the priests. “This is your answer,” I said, unraveling the scroll with the picture of the black hole.

The sharp eyes glared at it, and then looked at me thoughtfully. “You have answered correctly,” the bird guardian said. “Go forth and meet my mistress.” The statue upon pedestal slid, revealing the final passage.

I went through the passage, darkness greeting me. The pedestal closed behind me. I was trapped. I desperately tried to move the pedestal, but it was wedge firmly in the passage. I couldn’t push it, I couldn’t pull it.

“Why do you struggle so?” asked that same soft, feminine voice that I recognized all too well. “Is my presence not intoxicating?”

“I don’t know how it could be when I am trapped in a dark room,” I replied.

She giggled. “Oh, where are my manners? Follow my voice. You can’t see me, but worry not, for I can see you.”

She gave me directions, but I still stumbled about in the dark. A pain shot through my kneecap when I bumped into something that felt like a knee high stone pillar. There was a rattling, followed by a crash.

The room was spontaneously lit up by many different torches, pale pinks, hot reds, and deep crimson purples. There was a cauldron in the middle of the chamber, flat, flow to the ground, and wide enough to fit ten men in. The cauldron was gold with wide silver lines running vertical. Around the rim of the cauldron were rubies and sapphires encrusted into it. Behind the cauldron, silk hung down from the walls, rippling and red, sensuous. Yet I felt no peace of mind from such radiant beauty. Rather I felt a sense of danger, like the beautiful décor was there to suppress an ugliness. Water in the cauldron started to boil, first at a slow pace and then at a vicious. It shot up like a loud geyser, filling the room with steam, and as it did so it began to form the shape of a body, one with wide hips, long legs, a small torso, and large breasts underneath a red dress that clung to her as though it were a part of her body. Golden circlets dangled from her dainty wrists, with many rings, some with diamonds, on her fingers. Her neck was like that of a swan, her face the perfect oval shape with a long nose and green eyes against skin soft like milk. Her red hair was like scarlet, and she had it braided up into intricate buns. Around her head was a red diamond crown.

“Welcome, Erug,” the woman said to me. “Thank you for freeing me from that infernal base. Tell me, do you like how I was able to conjure up this setting so quickly? It’s impressive, much like me.”

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am the one Kartoc sealed away. I am the one whom he condemned.”

“You mean you are the evil god!” The realization was a double stab to the chest.

“Evil!” She seemed taken back that I’d even think such a thing. “First off, I’m a goddess. Tell me,” she moved her hand over her body. “Would an evil goddess look as beautiful as I, with my supple body, shapely ships, and mesmerizing eyes? I should say not! Besides, is that anyway to talk to your mother?”

“Mother!” I couldn’t believe my ears. I was wondering if there was some burning incense coming out of the cauldron, making me hallucinate.  “Then that would make you the wife of” –

She chuckled mischievously. “That’s right. It makes me Kartoc’s wife. Now tell me, have you ever laid your eyes on a more beautiful mother? Am I not the embodiment of radiance? Ah, but you are not yet a man. When you are older you shall know what I speak of. You see, that big oaf Kartoc couldn’t handle a strong woman. So he imprisoned me here. Worse, he defiled my name by making up lies about me, sullying my reputation.”

“I see.”

“Oh, but darling, you don’t! What lies have they passed down through the generations? Let me guess… Oh yes! There was some poor farm boy who overthrew the nobility who worshipped and adored. This country bumpkin became a king. Is that the gist of it?”

“You only know that because you’re the evil god, I mean goddess that was sealed away.”

“And I also know it because there was no farm boy who became king. My husband, the god you foolishly worship, is a pathological liar and he always has been.” Her eyes turned dark with anger. There are mistakes we make in life that we can never take back. I feared that I had just made one of them.

“What are you going to do now?” I asked quietly. This one simple question turned away her anger.

“Why, silly mortal, I am going to take my place in society again,” she beamed proudly. “And I have you to thank for it. Don’t worry. The priests have woken up from their slumbers, after some very pleasant dreams, I might add. As for your reward, well, I foresee it. You shall be memorialized in future scripture.”

“Huh?”

“Don’t you know, I forsaw you as the one who would liberate me! None of the other priests would do it. Believe me, I tried. Such a pity that they wouldn’t heed to the voice of a superior sex. You, on the other hand, are destined achieve greatness that the others could never hope to achieve. Be open to it and cast away your silly worship of that man who is more like a child than a god.”

Immediately I was back in my room, stunned over what just happened. What had I done? Whatever I had just done, I had forever shaken the core of humanity, changing the face of civilization. I wouldn’t know how much until later. Little was I prepared for it all.

 

The years further passed and I had seen nothing of the goddess. Sometimes I wondered if it was just all a dream. But it felt too real to be a dream. Often I had agonized over it. It was said that the father god would slay those who committed unforgivable offenses, and I couldn’t think of a more unforgivable offense than freeing the evil one. Yet here I was, still standing. I could only wish that what I thought happened didn’t truly happen.

This uncomfortable part of my life should have stayed buried in the past, but my thirteenth birthday deemed otherwise. I was in the midst of a huge assembly. Everyone was gathered there to witness my inauguration into the priesthood. We were standing at the statue of Kartoc, and Dyorn was initiating me into the order. I was looking up in the face of the deity the whole time. While the statue had always scared me, he seemed especially angry today. His stony expression read that he knew what I had done, the offense I had given. An unpleasant situation to say the least. I would rather that the earth opened up and swallowed me.

In my new priestly robes, I retired to my chamber when the ceremony was over. I sat on my bed, feeling sick, with anxiety squeezing my heart and poking my stomach.

I was just in the process of laying down when I found myself lifted out of my room and into the heavens. But the heavens were far from being a peaceful place. The clouds that spread out for miles in every direction were dark and red, and the sky was an even deeper shade of red, like a sea of blood from slain armies. Thunder rumbled like clashing spears and thousands of horse drawn chariots, and lightning flashed like blazing arrows. In the midst of it all was Kartoc, standing tall, looking down on me like I was an insignificant bug to be squashed. Anger flashed in his eyes, and the emblem of the lion on his breastplate seemed alive with a desire to eat me. I was afraid that he’d cleave me in two with the sword he had drawn, or that he would take the sickle from his back and cut off my head. In short, I was certain that my life was forfeit.

“What have you done!” This wasn’t a question. The great god knew what I had done. His voice boomed, louder than the thunder. Sparks flashed in his eyes, a microcosm of lightning. When I didn’t answer, being far too scared, he grabbed me by the head with his thumb and forefinger, lifting me up to his face. Hot air blew from his nostrils from the fire of his range within. “You released the evil one!”

“Kartoc, my lord, forgive me,” I pleaded, not having much faith in begging him for mercy. I might as well have begged for mercy towards an oncoming storm, or an earth-shaking quake. For before me stood not a man, but a force of nature that could not be tamed. Still, I tried to apply reason, knowing very well that my pleas were akin to the frightening squawks of a bird in the presence of a hungry cat. And hungry the god was, hungry for my devotion and worship. Memories of my first encounter with him as a statue came back into play. “The evil one beguiled me,” I said. “She put a spell on the priests. There was nothing I could do.”

“How weak you are!” Kartoc snarled at me, disapproval oozing off of his tongue, poisoning my heart. “Did you not know that the priests are descended from warriors? Where is your warrior heart?” With that he shook me, and I thought that my head would pop out from my shoulders, like I was a rag doll to be discarded.

“Please. What can I do to atone for my sin?” After I asked this he dropped me. I fell comfortably enough on the soft clouds.

“If you had of asked me to begin with, I could have given you proper guidance,” he chastised me. “But did you? No! You were like a hungry mouse going for the poisonous cheese. Curiosity was your teacher, not wisdom, and now you are in this mess.”

“My lord, please forgive me, but how was I to talk with you?”

“Do you not know the power of prayer?” he snapped at me, and I shuddered under the harshness of his tongue, a tongue that I thought could cleave my body into two as it did my soul. “Prayer would have ascended to me like an eagle flying to the mountain-top, but you chose to run around in a maze of misdirection. Well! Are you satisfied! Because you chose to follow your own moral compass, instead of turning to me, the evil one will be perverting the hearts of men, twisting their desires into immoral purposes.”

“Maybe I can make this right?” I ventured.

“You shouldn’t even be asking me this. I had for-seen you as the one would ignore the cries of the evil one and became a head priest in my name. In the future I saw you as the greatest priest that lived, as my chosen vessel. That is why I rescued you from the scorching desert. But you have made mock of what I had decreed, despising your birthright.”

“Can I get my birthright back?” and though I asked, I didn’t know if I wanted it back.

Kartoc’s voice and eyes softened. “Hmmm….. Well, no, or perhaps. Yes, it will certainly be a trial, no doubt, one that will weave a tail for the priests to record throughout the ages, but it could work.”

He clamped his right hand tight and then opened it again, revealing a jewel, bright red like fresh drawn blood. He tossed it toward me and it shrunk as it landed in the palm of my hand. The sides of the jewel were sharp. I was careful so as not to cut myself. “How will this help?”

“That will imprison her, my son.” I looked up at him, shocked to see the face of a beast melt away for one of paternal care. But I dare not argue that I didn’t want to face the evil one again. With gods it is not wise. “From a large block of ruby she was carved. She was to be my wife, your mother goddess. Yet she could not cleave unto my wisdom. Vanity and narcissism were her loves. And instead of seeing the full potential of men, she saw them as her baubles and trinkets to use however she pleased. To further inflict men, she created women. She lied to me, telling me that they would serve as companions, earthly angels. It was then I agreed that they could make humankind together. Suffice to say, the evil one ended up leaving me, trying to woo men, our children, to her chaotic mindset. I must say, the females she created aren’t any better. Hence, only men are allowed in the priesthood.”

“But what must I do with the ruby?” I asked before he could veer off topic again.

“She must be trapped a second time. The first time I was too lenient on her. I thought that letting the Gecata imprison her in a dungeon full of riddles was enough, and that in time I could claim her as my own again. I curse my foolishness. But this ruby that you hold, why, she won’t be able to resist it. It is a part of her. What you must do is use the ruby to carve a magic circle in the floor. I will send you a vision as to what the circle will look like. But first, you must attract her. Play into her vanity so that she will find the circle and the ruby in it. Once she picks it up, she will be sucked in, the circle and the ruby working together to entrap her in an unbreakable barrier that she will never be able to get out of unless I deem otherwise.”

“What if I can’t find a way to persuade her to return?” I asked the question out of naivety coupled with a false sense of security that I was in the good god’s graces again. I was unprepared for the condemnation it provoked.

“Then I shall punish you to the utter farthing. I shall plant a seed in each of the priest’s hearts, turning them against one another with the sword. When it’s all done, you shall remain, swimming in a sea of blood. Now, cease your incessant lack of faith and amend your error. Then I can claim you as mine, having fulfilled your destiny.”

Then, just like that, I was back in bed. For a moment I hoped that it was a dream. But when I closed my right hand, I found the ruby was still there. I groaned. It wasn’t fair. I hadn’t asked for any of this. Yet, here I was, a pawn to be used.

“What are you thinking about, dear?” It was that same feminine voice that got me in this mess in the first place, and I hadn’t even had time to draw a magic circle.

“It’s you,” I said, looking up at the evil one, who was my height. “The evil one!”

She smiled at me, pointing to her teeth. “Does this look like the face of an evil one to you?”

It is said that evil can be made to look attractive. If not, no one would be beguiled by it. Still, I held my peace.

“What do you have in your hand?” she asked me in a sing-song voice while she approached me, sitting by my bedside.

“Nothing?” I lied. A foolish act, to be honest. No one can lie to a god or a goddess.

“Well, I’ll have you know that I am a goddess. Do I have to beat it into your feeble skull once again? And you may call me Temelia. Now, stop lying. What do you have hiding from me?”

“It’s” – I couldn’t finish. She had yanked away the covers and found the ruby laying there.

“For me? Why it’s lovely!” She held it up, admiring it. “However, I don’t believe it will trap me without a magic circle. Oh dear, oh dear, was this my oafish husband’s brilliant idea? I shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, this is the same dullard who had the brilliant idea of letting his past followers be in charge of my imprisonment. As if he could hope to hold a being as alluring as I. Don’t you see? The world needs one such as I, and you, little man, are going to help me shine.”

“Kartoc will kill me.” I hoped desperately that she could see the plight that she was putting me in.

She put an arm around my shoulder, as if doing so could provide motherly comfort. “I wouldn’t worry about it, dear.”

“Why not?”

“Because I can do so much worse. I can make you and the rest of the priests eunuchs.”

Her point was well taken. “What must I do?”

“Trap him instead of me.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

She giggled. “You men don’t know your own weaknesses, but to us women they are clear as a spring morning. Tell me, do you really think that Kartoc cares about your archaic worship of him? Oh, he certainly wants your adoration. And like a man as vain as he is, he gets jealous when his fragile ego is challenged. But your reverent worship, he doesn’t care about it. Despite his proclaimed holiness, he is just like any other man. Righteousness doesn’t guide his heart. His appetites include food, drink, and women, governing his stomach and his loins. Therefore we will give him what he wants.” She gave me a long hard stare. “We are going to give him a feast and I will bring in other women to attend, and you are going to help me with it.”

“Me? How am I supposed to convince the other priests to help me?” Temelia was asking too much. “I’m sure some wouldn’t want to be made into eunuchs, but some won’t care either since they have already taken a vow of chastity.”

“That has already been taken care of,” she assured me, beaming at her own superior intellect. “I have molded the hearts of the priests to follow you.”

“You can do that?”

“Of course I can. A woman’s touch is very powerful.”

“I thought it was because you were a goddess.”

“All women are goddesses,” she corrected me as if I were a simpleton. “It’s why we are able to influence men for good or evil. You don’t need a big masculine god to order you around, since we are the ones who pull your strings.”

“What must I do?” I sighed.

Temalia told me her plan. I was to direct the priests in fixing up a grand banquet for Kartoc. I was to give the directions, to foresee that everything was cooked to perfection. It was my job to direct the priests to retrieve the finest meats and wines from the cellar, and to have them pick the finest vegetables out from the garden. I wondered why a goddess couldn’t just use her magic powers to conjure up a scrumptious banquet instead of controlling the priests and letting me oversee them. “Because I want them to see the glory that is there’s if they serve me,” she said as though she were doing us all a favor. “And I have a soft spot for you, little man. Maybe I will make you my head priest, and you will introduce pleasure back into the order. My visions tell me that this is to be.” I didn’t want to be her head priest, but I didn’t dare say anything for fear of what someone as unpredictable as her could do if I refused. Still, this put me in a terrible situation. I was wondering when Kartoc would kill me.

Eventually, everything was set up, and Temalia made the priests take a vow that they would pretend that this feast was in honor of Kartoc. To feign seriousness, we all sang a loud song that Temalia taught us, imploring the warrior god to come down from his throne and eat with us. This was unusual]. I had grown up believing that the warrior god was stoic and quiet, and that was the form of reverence he wished for.

Nonetheless, our song worked. The earth shook, and the walls in front of us crumbled. I coughed because of the dust. When the dust cleared, Kartoc stood before us. Much to my relief, the god wasn’t as huge as he was when I first met him in the heavens. Yet, that didn’t make him any less imposing. Nor did it give me any peace of mind when he directed his gaze towards me, a sneer on his lips. If he was a divine father who loved his earthly children, I certainly didn’t feel it. Had he ever loved his children? It was a question that I would never know. And it was just he and I. Well, close to just him and me. I did have the priests by my side, but against a god that didn’t amount to anything. Two warriors also stood guard by Kartoc. I had no idea what a god would need with warriors. They certainly weren’t earthly warriors. Both stood on two feet, each of them were girthed in silver blue armor from shoulder to toe. But their heads were not those of man, but of animal. One was a lion, the other an eagle, and both possessed the love of battle in their countenances.

As for Temalia, she had left us, she was nowhere to be seen.

“Why do you call me down from the heavens?” Gyshtak roared.

Amongst the confusion of having a god we had so longed worshipped in our midst, I can’t remember everything the priests said to placate him. But I do remember that there was much praised heaped on him and the stroking of his ego.

When he was invited to sit and eat, he declined until his servants tasted the food first. The eagle and the lion bit a portion out of the seasoned meat, and immediately were transformed from humanoid warriors into common animals. On four feet, the lion leapt out of his suit of armor, while the eagle flew out, talons barred. Humbled, they still possessed that same fighting spirit in their souls. We all parted so as not to get in their way as they ran down the halls and out of the temple.

Kartoc was livid. “There is only one kind of sorcery that is capable of this. Temalia, show yourself, you sneaky minx!”

The goddess was in the room again, bedecked in a silver gown of crystal and diamonds, flowing like waters over her body. “Kartoc, perhaps you aren’t as big of an oaf as I thought. Still an oaf, but slightly less so.”

“What is this sorcery?” the god said, examining the priests before him. “How could you turn their hearts against me?”

“I only slightly turned their hearts against you,” she retorted. “Deep down a man is just a boy, yearning for a mother, for strong female guidance.”

“You, a mother?” Kartoc looked at her as though there were roaches crawling all over her. “What sort of mother could you be? You are a harlot! Teaching my children to walk in your unholy ways after the lusts of their hearts.”

“I don’t need you to lecture me,” her high voice was just as firm as his. “So what if I encourage the pleasures of the flesh. You encourage the slaughtering of brother against brother, father against son. This earth is a bloodbath for you to wade in.”

“Better toughening up my children to the harsh realities of life than beguiling their hearts to indulge in the appetites of the flesh. You turn the hearts of men to abandon their wives, to forsake friendship over a harlot. You have no right to lecture me over violence, when men naturally turn violent over women, and women turn violent when they are spurned. Your whole sex is based on jealousy.”

“Jealousy! You have the audacity to call me out? You couldn’t compete with a strong woman, so you imprisoned me.”

“I imprisoned you for your sweet, honeyed words that disguised an acid. You manipulate others to do your bidding. I am blunt and forthright. Women take after you, manipulative and leeching off men for riches. You use men, and so do most other females. And then when they give you all they have, and can’t give any more, you dispose of them, leaving them an empty shell. It’s what you did to your followers before I locked you away. They gave the gifts of the earth to you, but it was never enough. You kept robbing them.”

“So what if I took a little. You trained boys to grow up to be violent brutes. And you hated women so much, that you forsook them from serving you in your sanctuary.”

By now Kartoc’s voice was shaking the walls. “I did so because I knew that your kind couldn’t be trusted. Overly emotional, making rash decision, and being treasure hunters, you would degenerate my priests.”

“You’ve already degenerated them by making their ancestors into bloodthirsty warriors, quick to kill over a difference of opinion.” Temalia’s voice was just as firm and foundation shaking as her ex-husband’s.

For a brief moment, I was in a state of bliss thinking that the two quarrelsome gods had forgotten about me. “Erug,” they both called my name in unintentional unison. So much for thinking positively.

“Don’t you further poison him against me,” Kartoc warned Temalia.

“You’ve already turned him against yourself years ago,” said Temalia, her tongue a berating hammer. “You could have used your guiding hand to guide him to a new family after he was abandoned. Not here with a bunch of men who show very little emotion. We will talk to him separately.”

“Fine,” snorted Kartoc. “But no tricks. I will fortify him against you with my words of wisdom. I will talk to him first.”

“So like a man! Always has to be first! It doesn’t matter. Talk to him. You can’t chain his heart. I know he’ll make the right decision.”

Kartoc snapped his fingers and we were back in the heavens where I first met the god. However, he chose to keep human sized height rather than his imposing original form, something of which I was grateful. But I couldn’t afford to be at ease. Even a baby pit viper is venomous, sometimes even more so than the adult. I knew I still had lots to fear from this old god.

“My boy, I know you will make the right decision,” he said gently. “Trust not her wiles. Her goal for mankind is the pursuit of unbridled pleasure. Such a lifestyle is folly, leading man, as well as woman, into the path of destruction.” When I was silent, he barked to me sharply, “Why do you hesitate. Speak freely. I give you my permission.”

Afraid to talk, I was even more afraid to defy him by keeping silent. “You seem to care for me now. But last time you treated me like I was an insect, threatening me with punishment for my sin by having the priests kill one another.”

“Sometimes a father has to be harsh. Sometimes I have to kill some people. But it’s for the greater good, to protect society as a whole. I’m asking you now, serve me. Help me break the spell that she has cast over the other priests’ hearts. Turn their souls to me again. Reclaim your rightful place. You say I’m kind to you. Of course I am! You are my son, and I had a vision of you becoming the greatest priest of all, even to the point of scattering my enemies to the winds.”

“If I fail, will you kill me?” My tongue had suddenly loosened. “Or will you find some other way to punish me to make me wish I were dead? I feel like I have no free will in this matter.”

“I give you an oath,” said Kartoc, gripping me by the hand, “I will not harm you regardless of what you choose. But I certainly hope that your loins, or worse, your heart doesn’t fall for this vixen’s wiles. Furthermore, I will take you to my kingdom. You only saw me sitting on my throne in the clouds. There is more than that. There are mountains, rugged and strong like me, teeming with all manner of game giving the best meat. Come up there, and I will make you immortal, dissolving your body of flesh into one of steel. You will have the power to fight against evil, as I let you wield weapons that bring forth earthquakes, fissures, and lightening. This I will do when you serve your time on earth, when you fulfill your destiny that I have laid out for you.”

“And if I refuse?”

“It’s true that I said that I won’t hurt you,” Kartoc admitted. “But she will. Make no mistake. She will lead you to ruin in the end. Her visions never come to pass. If you choose to follow her or be neutral, I shall withdraw my protection from you and you shall be alone. I, your father, loves you. Your mother does not.”

“What must I do?” I was growing wary of being involved in part of a cruel game with no end in sight. My love for the god of war, if I ever had any, was wasted away.

“You will give Temalia a choice. Release the priests from her hold or you will slay them.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “What?”

“Your mother is vain,” he continued, oblivious to, or more than likely not caring about my discomfort. “We will play on her vanity. You will tell her that she can either see the priests be slain or she can free them. This will put her in a bind. She’s narcissistic, and won’t like the idea of you slaying her followers. But even if she releases them from her hold, she might kill them herself, not keen on the idea of losing them either. Such a selfish creature! So like a woman!”

“How does this help the situation?” I asked, perplexed as to what he thought he had to gain on.

“She will go through one of her tempers. I’m sure of it.” Excitement had overcome the god as he pounded one of his fists into one of his palms. “You will see her wail over such a cruel fate. That is when you will finish her. Never will she turn the hearts of men against me again.”

“But she’ll try to kill me!” I protested.

“No, she won’t! I will have you under my protection.”

“But the priests will try and kill me!”

“Quit your sniveling, boy. Do you love me, I, who gave you this home, or not?”

“Yes.” My lie was obvious, but I think he couldn’t see it because he was wrapped up in his own vanity.

“Then take this and serve me,” he handed me a sword wreathed in white fire. I reluctantly took it. The heat was intense. Snapping his fingers, I was back in the temple where the priests were.

“What’s this?” Temalia asked me. Her gentle tone couldn’t hide the anger festering underneath it.

Suffice to say, I know that she saw through my ruse, and I felt my tongue freeze in my mouth under her gaze. Logic dictates that I should have dropped the blade in my hand. But under fear, logic is overruled. My hand gripped the hilt even tighter.

She put a gentle hand on my shoulder, though I am hesitant to use the word gentle. There was something that felt manipulative about her touch. She whispered in my ear. “What did he tell you to do?”

“To give you the choice. Either I slaughter the priests you have in your power, or you release them.” The words tumbled out of my mouth.

“Hmmm, is that so?” she said quietly, her red lips forming a faint smile. “And I suppose he told you that you’d catch me throwing a tantrum, and that then you’d be able to pierce me through my poor, fragile heart. Is what I not say true?” I could only gulp, feeling like I was a mouse that was unfortunate enough to be caught between two rolling boulders that came from opposite directions.

The temple fell away from my sight and I was in a garden, vast and green, overgrown with fruit trees and twisted vines. The sky was a twilight, and against the backdrop was a silver palace standing tall, its many spires touching the sky like it was a crown. Temalia directed me towards a soft purple couch to sit on. She in turn sat on a pink one. The couches didn’t look out of place on the grassy, twilight landscape.

“He wanted you to kill me, didn’t he?” she said, sprawled on her couch, her tight dress spilling like water onto the earth. “Such a fool. So predictable.” When I said nothing, she said, “You know you don’t have to follow his orders. All of this could be yours. Join me. I have forseen it. This is your destiny.”

“And if I don’t?” I didn’t ask the question in defiance, but in exhaustion. “Will you punish the priests, take away their manhood? Or will you just kill me?”

“My dear, I won’t do anything of the sort. But I will reward you with riches untold. Any woman you want will be yours. I can even be yours.”

The ground shook and we were back in the temple. Kartoc was standing there, fuming. I could count my blessings, even though there was no god I could thank, that his anger was directed towards her and not me.

“What nonsense have you been filling the boy’s head with?” His voice reverberated with thunder and cracked with lightening. “If only I could kill you.”

If I thought that the goddess couldn’t raise her voice, I was wrong. She wailed back at him, in a high pitched screech like the howling wind of a hurricane accompanying a flood. “You dare to talk to me like this? I, who helped you create life, and who gave men the ability to create life by giving them a vastly superior partner! Harm a hair on my head, and I’ll punish all your men before I do. They will be unable to produce seed. The human race will slowly die off.”

“Confound you, woman,” roared Kartoc. “Release my servants.”

“Fine. I shall do so, and you will see that they will all still follow me. Not because I control them, but because they desire me as their goddess.”

She snapped her fingers and the priests came to their senses. For a moment, they looked bewildered, as if they had just woken up from a long dream.

“My servants, take your rightful place beside me,” said Kartoc. “Reclaim your honor.”

There was some hesitation among some as they spoke amongst each other. Never before had I seen such passionate discussion among the priests, including Dyorn. Finally, some, including Dyorn, made their way to Kartoc, and others to Temalia. Kartoc fumed. Temalia fumed, too.

“Who do you serve?” they both asked me in unison.

“Serve your father,” Kartoc spoke to me as a father would to his son. “I will lead you in honor and sobriety. You have been predestined to.”

“If by honor and being sober you mean being drunk off the blood of innocents whom you delight in slaughtering,” Temalia looked at him in disgust. Turning her soft gaze to me, she said, “Follow me and I will teach you all about love. That is truly your destiny, and you will be heralded as a bringer of love by all.”

“Don’t you mean perversion?” scoffed Kartoc. “And you call yourself a mother?”

I don’t know what it was that gave me strength. Maybe I was tired of being ordered around. Maybe I feared that no matter what I chose, one of them would punish or kill me anyway. Maybe I was feeling defiant. Maybe a little bit of all three. Looking back, it doesn’t matter. The point is, I ran. I ran out of the temple and I didn’t look back. The two of them called my name, commanding me to return, but I ignored them, and, for some reasons that may be their own, they didn’t follow. Either way, I ran through the canyon-lands and into the vast desert.

Out in that hostile wilderness, I was on my own. The days were hot, the nights were cold. I didn’t have anyone to pray to. I had to find water on my own. I’m not sure how I did so, but I remembered reading in the scrolls back in the library that water could be found if dug for, or in stone basins. The fact that I was occasionally able to find it was dumb luck. I would like to say that it was a miracle, but I had no gods to help me. I counted myself even luckier when I came across a crevice in a rock, in which out trickled running water. I decided that I would make my home there, learning how to hunt for food. How, I didn’t know. But I knew I’d find a way. Exhausted, I fell immediately asleep after I slaked my thirst, under the shade of looming cliffs, the hot sun warming their tops. I woke at night, a chill over me. I wrapped my cloak tighter against me and looked up at the pale moon.

Come to me, a voice said. It was a different voice. Masculine in nature, but not as harsh as Kartoc’s. I wasn’t sure where the voice was coming from, but I had the impression that the moon would lead the way.

A pastel ray of soft light washed the cliff side to the right of me. There was a rumbling as stone steps protruded out from the cliff-side. Carefully I walked up them until I came to the top, where four monoliths formed a square. Enclosing the square was that same soft, pale light. Inside was some creature, a hybrid of different animals.

“I knew you’d come,” the creature spoke out of the snout of a wolf that had the horns and ears of a bull. He flapped his two wings eagerly, one of a brightly colored parrot, the other of a white swan. His torso was that of a bear. His tail that of a hissing viper. His legs looked like horse legs, but ended in the talons of an eagle. He beckoned me over with his arms and hands that were that of an ape.

“What kind of magic is this?” I asked. “Is this your true form?”

“Of course not,” his voice was smooth, and surprisingly calming for a creature of his size. “I have many forms. I can take many forms.” He morphed his body again, his head turning into that of a lion, his wings into that of a bat, his torso, arms, and legs into a lizard, and his tail into tail feathers of a hawk. “For I am the forgotten god, imprisoned by Kartoc and Temalia.”

“What god are you?”

“Is it not obvious? I am the god of the animals, but I am also a trickster. It was I who manipulated events to lead you here, so that you might free me. Those other two, they think they are in control, but I controlled them.”

“What do you want of me?” I asked, wishing to avoid being ordered about again.

“Only to be freed.”

If I had been reluctant before, I was rebellious now. “Not going to happen. I have been used too much. Besides, you already said that you were a trickster.”

I expected anger, so I found it unsettling when the god gave me a curious look and said, “So be it.”

I foolishly thought that I had settled the matter. But one cannot get involved with gods and expect not to be used. The days passed and my hunger pangs increased. I had been struggling to create a spear over a discarded staff I had found in the desert, by tying a sharp flint to it with a string from my cloak. I went through a lot of frustration making the spear, but success did come to me. However, whenever I tried to hunt lizards and birds, they were too fast for me.

One day I found a large, fat white bird. Plump and juicy, I knew that its meat would sustain me. It wasn’t faster either. When I ran up to it, it just limped along. I jabbed my makeshift spear into it. It released its breath of life with a pitiful squak. Out of the bird popped a black cat.

“Thank you for freeing me,” the cat said in that smooth voice. “You wanted to know my true form. I don’t have one, but I much prefer this one.”

“How did you get out?” I asked.

The god chuckled, a scratchy cat laugh. “Did I not tell you that I am a trickster? Thousands of years ago, before I was imprisoned, they made sure to seal my portals, so that I could not escape from my confinement. They sealed just about everywhere, and I was weak, almost drained completely of powers. However, I used my last remaining bit of strength to create this dead bird which housed a portal from my prison to the outside world. I could only do it once, and the only way I could be freed was with being cut open. However, as a god I am immortal, and have no problem waiting. I knew that I could get you to come and cut this second portal open.”

Once again I had been used, even though I thought I had complete control of the situation. I wondered how he was going to punish me.

“Oh, don’t be so dour,” he said, leaping on a rock and washing his paw with his tongue. “I am Tigin, the god of the animals. We are far more grateful than people, even over little things. I may be a prankster but I’m fear. I’m not going to harm a hair on your head, or anywhere else for that matter. I have other matters to attend to. Those two bungling oafs are so enamored by priests that they forget that there are better servants. The shepherds, vets, ranchers, and animal trainers will be my army, and they shall serve me nicely. Would you like to serve me?”

“I just want to be away from this nonsense,” I said. “Please,” my last word was a desperate plea.

“So be it,” said Tigin. “My power is already rejuvenating. I am going to open a portal for you. It will lead you to an oases two-hundred miles from here. Occasionally caravans come through, but you’ll be in solitude for the most part.”

 

I now close my writing this account of the events since then. In truth, there isn’t much to tell. On first coming to the oasis, it was too good to be true. In some ways, it still is. I made myself a hut here. There are plenty of fruit trees to sustain me, and I have long ago learned how to hunt the birds, lizards, and snakes that make the oasis there home. I am now an old man, but I am as content as I can be. I have no desire to go back to the outside world. Though, twice in my life I have had a traveling caravan pass by. They have never bore good news. I have learned that away from this isolation the world is in a state of war over which god to follow. Kartoc, Temalia, and Tigin are all at war with each other. Whole cities have been wiped out. And the punishments the gods mete on their enemies are harsh, bereft of any sort of justice. To compact this problem, other gods have since been freed, gaining their own followers, forming their own armies. There are about ten different gods with their own worshippers, each of them waging war against another, using humanity as their pawns to do so. It appears that the ten gods are part of a much larger feuding family.

I realize the only reason I am safe is because in the end I am insignificant to them. I have chosen no allegiance, and hence I live my days here alone. If I was forced to choose an allegiance, I would go for Tigin, for it was the god of animals, a trickster though he may be, who has rewarded me for my service and left me alone. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel a sense of guilt, like I was catalyst that destroyed peace on earth. Unwitting, yes, but does that make me any less guilty? Sometimes, especially at night, I can hear the voice of spilled blood come up from the earth, condemning me for my transgression.

Sometimes I toy with the idea of leaving my sanctuary, going out into the open world and seeing the devastation. But I don’t. I can’t help but wonder if it’s because I’m a coward who doesn’t want to see what my decisions wrought. Another part of me feels like I shouldn’t have to be held accountable for it, that I was being used by malevolent forces.

Whether it is my fault or not, I acknowledge that I changed the fate of the world. Because of me, people have to choose which of the many gods they are going to give their allegiances to. Friends and families are divided. War and brutality is the order of the day. And as I look over the clear waters of the oasis and rest under the shade of the palms, I try to tell myself that it’s not my problem. It’s not my problem. No, it most certainly isn’t my problem. I will live the rest of my life here. I don’t think I have too many years left and I am fine with that. Death can always offer another escape.

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